Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda
Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1965/1973) (French: Propagandes; original French edition: 1962) is a book on the subject of propaganda by French philosopher, theologian, legal scholar, and sociologist Jacques Ellul. This book appears to be the first attempt to study propaganda from a sociological approach as well as a psychological one. It presents a sophisticated taxonomy for propaganda, including such paired opposites as political–sociological, vertical–horizontal, rational–irrational, and agitation–integration. The book contains Ellul’s theories about the nature of propaganda to adapt the individual to a society, to a living standard, and to an activity aiming to make the individual serve and conform.
A far more frightening work than any of the nightmare novels of George Orwell. With the logic which is the great instrument of French thought, [Ellul] explores and attempts to prove the thesis that propaganda, whether its ends are demonstrably good or bad, is not only destructive to democracy, it is perhaps the most serious threat to humanity operating in the modern world.
Selected excerpts from Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, without commentary. Full PDF here.
Central in Ellul’s thesis, is that modern propaganda cannot work without “education”; he thus reverses the widespread notion that education is the best prophylactic against propaganda. On the contrary he says, education, or what usually goes by that word in the modern world, is the absolute prerequisite for propaganda. In fact, education is largely identical with what Ellul calls “pre-propaganda”—the conditioning of minds with vast amounts of incoherent information, already dispensed for ulterior purposes and posing as “facts” and as “education.” Ellul follows through by designating intellectuals as virtually the most vulnerable of all to modern propaganda, for three reasons: (1) they absorb the largest amount of secondhand, unverifiable information; (2) they feel a compelling need to have an opinion on every important question of our time, and thus easily succumb to opinions offered to them by propaganda on all such indigestible pieces of information; (3) they consider themselves capable of “judging for themselves.” They literally need propaganda. (vi)
For propaganda to succeed, a society must first have two complementary qualities: it must be both an individualist and a mass society. These two qualities are often considered contradictory. It is believed that an individualist society, in which the individual is thought to have a higher value than the group, tends to destroy groups that limit the individual’s range of action, whereas a mass society negates the individual and reduces him to a cipher. But this contradiction is purely theoretical and a delusion. In actual fact, an individualist society must be a mass society, because the first move toward liberation of the individual is to break up the small groups that are an organic fact of the entire society. In this process the individual frees himself completely from family, village, parish, or brotherhood bonds—only to find himself directly vis-a-vis the entire society. When individuals are not held together by local structures, the only form in which they can live together is in an unstructured mass society. Similarly, a mass society can only be based on individuals—that is, on men in their isolation, whose identities are determined by their relationships with one another. Precisely because the individual claims to be equal to all other individuals, he becomes an abstraction and is in effect reduced to a cipher. (90, emphasis added)
An individual can be influenced by forces such as propaganda only when he is cut off from membership in local groups. . . . An individual thus uprooted can only be part of a mass. He is on his own, and individualist thinking asks of him something he has never been required to do before: that he, the individual, become the measure of all things. (91-92)
Thus, here is one of the first conditions for the growth and development of modern propaganda: It emerged in western Europe in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth precisely because that was when society was becoming increasingly individualistic and its organic structures were breaking down. (93)
In contemporary society there actually is a close relation between mass and crowd. Because a mass society exists, crowds can gather frequently—that is, the individual constantly moves from one crowd to another, from a street crowd to a factory crowd, or a theater crowd, a subway crowd, a crowd gathered at a meeting. Conversely, the very fact of belonging to crowds turns the individual more and more into a mass man and thus modifies his very being. (94)[The] means of disseminating propaganda depend on the existence of the masses; in the United States these means are called the mass media of communications with good reason: without the mass to receive propaganda and carry it along, propaganda is impossible. . . . Thus the mass society was a primary condition for the emergence of propaganda; once formed, it evoked the power and functions of propaganda. (95-96) [There is a] conception [that] propaganda is a “sinister invention of the military caste,” whereas actually it is the expression of modern society as a whole. (118, emphasis added)
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. . . . We are thus face to face with a dual need: the need on the part of regimes to make propaganda, and the need of the propagandee. These two conditions correspond to and complement each other in the development of propaganda. (121)[In a democratic society], 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. (126)
The secret of propaganda success or failure is this: Has it or has it not satisfied the unconscious need of the individual whom it addressed? (138-9)
The man who keeps himself informed needs a framework in which all this information can be put in order; he needs explanations and comprehensive answers to general problems; he needs coherence. And he needs an affirmation of his own worth. All this is the immediate effect of information. And the more complicated the problems are, the more simple the explanations must be; the more fragmented the canvas, the simpler the pattern; the more difficult the question, the more all-embracing the solution; the more menacing the reduction of his own worth, the greater the need for boosting his ego. All this propaganda—and only propaganda—can give him.
Of course, an outstanding man of vast culture, great intelligence, and exceptional energy can find answers for himself, reconcile himself to the absurd, and plan his own action. But we are not thinking here of the outstanding man (who, naturally, we all imagine ourselves to be), but of the ordinary man. (146, emphasis added)
That loneliness inside the crowd is perhaps the most terrible ordeal of modern man; that loneliness in which he can share nothing, talk to nobody, and expect nothing from anybody, leads to severe personality disturbances. For it, propaganda, encompassing Human Relations, is an incomparable remedy. It corresponds to the need to share, to be a member of a community, to lose oneself in a group, to embrace a collective ideology that will end loneliness. Propaganda is the true remedy for loneliness. (148)
Urban life gives a feeling of weakness and dependence to the individual: he is dependent on everything—public transportation, the tax-collector, the policeman, his employer, the city’s public utilities. Separately, these elements would not affect him, but combined they produce this feeling of diminution in modern man. But man cannot stand being unimportant; he cannot accept the status of a cipher. He needs to assert himself, to see himself as a hero. He needs to feel he is somebody and to be considered as such. He needs to express his authority, the drive for power and domination that is in every man. Under our present conditions, that instinct is completely frustrated. Though some routes of escape exist—the movies give the viewer a chance to experience self-esteem by identification with the hero, for example—that is not enough. Only propaganda provides the individual with a fully satisfactory response to his profound need.
The more his needs increase in the collective society, the more propaganda must give man the feeling that he is a free individual. Propaganda alone can create this feeling, which, in turn, will integrate the individual into collective movements. Thus, it is a powerful boost to his self-esteem. Though a mass instrument, it addresses itself to each individual. (149-50)
It is well known to what extent modern man needs escape. Escape is a general phenomenon of our civilization because man has to battle against far too many contradictions and tensions imposed on him by the conditions of life. He seeks to flee these difficulties, and is encouraged to do so by the contemporary ideology of happiness. Propaganda offers him an extraordinary possibility of escape into action. (151, note)
However that may be, anxiety exists and spreads. It is irrational, and any attempt to calm it with reason or facts must fail. To demonstrate factually in a climate of anxiety that the feared danger is much smaller than it is believed to be, only increases anxiety; the information is used to prove that there is reason for fear. (154)[The] individual has received irrational certainties from propaganda, and precisely because they are irrational, they seem to him part of his personality. He feels personally attacked when these certainties are attacked. There is a feeling here akin to that of something sacred. And this genuine taboo prevents the individual from entertaining any new ideas that might create ambiguity within him.
Incidentally, this refusal to listen to new ideas usually takes on an ironic aspect: the man who has been successfully subjected to a vigorous propaganda will declare that all new ideas are propaganda. To the degree that all his stereotypes, prejudices, and justifications are the fruit of propaganda, man will be ready to consider all other ideas as being propaganda and to assert his distrust in propaganda. One can almost postulate that those who call every idea they do not share “propaganda” are themselves almost completely products of propaganda. Their refusal to examine and question ideas other than their own is characteristic of their condition.
One might go further and say that propaganda tends to give a person a religious personality: his psychological life is organized around an irrational, external, and collective tenet that provides a scale of values, rules of behavior, and a principle of social integration. In a society in the process of secularization, propaganda responds to the religious need, but lends much more vigor and intransigence to the resulting religious personality, in the pejorative sense of that term (as liberals employed it in the nineteenth century): a limited and rigid personality that mechanically applies divine commandments, is incapable of engaging in human dialogue, and will never question values that it has placed above the individual. All this is produced by propaganda, which pretends to have lost none of its humanity, to act for the good of mankind, and to represent the highest type of human being. In this respect, strict orthodoxies always have been the same. (167-68, emphasis added)
When the propagandee tries to assert himself as a living reality, he demonstrates his total alienation most clearly; for he shows that he can no longer even distinguish between himself and society. He is then perfectly integrated, he is the social group, there is nothing in him not of the group, there is no opinion in him that is not the group’s opinion. He is nothing except what propaganda has taught him. He is merely a channel that ingests the truths of propaganda and dispenses them with the conviction that is the result of his absence as a person. He cannot take a single step back to look at events under such conditions; there can be no distance of any kind between him and propaganda. (171)
It is important to note that when the propagandee believes to be expressing the highest ideal of personality, he is at the lowest point of alienation. (172, emphasis added)
The cult of the hero is the absolutely necessary complement of the classification of society. . . . This exaltation of the hero proves that one lives in a mass society. The individual who is prevented by circumstances from becoming a real person, who can no longer express himself through personal thought or action, who finds his aspirations frustrated, projects onto the hero all he would wish to be. He lives vicariously and experiences the athletic or amorous or military exploits of the god with whom he lives in spiritual symbiosis. The well-known mechanism of identifying with movie stars is almost impossible to avoid for the member of modern society who comes to admire himself in the person of the hero. There he reveals the powers of which he unconsciously dreams, projects his desires, identifies himself with this success and that adventure. . . . The propagandee is alienated and transposed into the person promoted by propaganda (publicity campaigns for movie stars and propaganda campaigns are almost identical). (172-3)[An] individual subjected to propaganda behaves as though his reactions depended on his own decisions. He obeys, he trembles with fear and expands or contracts on command, but nothing in this obedience is passive or automatic; even when yielding to suggestion, he decides “for himself” and thinks himself free—in fact the more he is subjected to propaganda, the freer he thinks he is. He is energetic and chooses his own action. In fact, propaganda, to reduce the tension it has created in the first place, offers him one, two, even three possible courses of action, and the propagandee considers himself a well-organized, fully aware individual when he chooses one of them. (178)
Philippe de Felice has said that propaganda creates a tendency to manic-depressive (cyclothymic) neurosis. This is obviously an exaggeration, but it is true that propaganda puts the individual through successive periods of exaltation and depression, caused by exposing him to alternate propaganda themes. We have already analyzed the necessity for alternating themes, for example, alternating those of terror and of self-assertion. The result is a continuous emotional contrast, which can become very dangerous for individuals exposed to it. . . . Nowadays, man acts without thinking, and in turn his thought can no longer be translated into action. Thinking has become a superfluous exercise, without reference to reality; it is purely internal, without compelling force, more or less a game. (p. 178-9, emphasis added)
According to propaganda, it is useless, even harmful for man to think; thinking prevents him from acting with the required righteousness and simplicity. Action must come directly from the depths of the unconscious; it must release tension, become a reflex. This presumes that thought unfolds on an entirely unreal level, that it never engages in political decisions. And this is in fact so. No political thought that is at all coherent or distinct can possibly be applied. What man thinks either is totally without effect or must remain unsaid. This is the basic condition of the political organization of the modern world, and propaganda is the instrument to attain this effect. An example that shows the radical devaluation of thought is the transformation of words in propaganda; there, language, the instrument of the mind, becomes “pure sound,” a symbol directly evoking feelings and reflexes. This is one of the most serious dissociations that propaganda causes. There is another: the dissociation between the verbal universe, in which propaganda makes us live, and reality. . . .
It is sometimes said that two competing propagandas cancel each other out; if, however, one regards propaganda not as a debate of ideas or the promulgation of a doctrine, but as psychological manipulation designed to produce action, one understands that these two propagandas, far from canceling each other out because they are contradictory, have a cumulative effect. A boxer, groggy from a left hook, does not return to normal when he is hit with a right hook; he becomes groggier. Now, the modern propagandist likes to speak of his “shock effect.” And it is indeed a psychological shock that the individual subjected to propaganda suffers. But a second shock from another angle certainly does not revive him. On the contrary, a second phenomenon is then produced by these contradictory propagandas: the man whose psychological mechanisms have been set in motion to make him take one action is stopped by the second shock, which acts on the same mechanisms to produce another action. [fn: The effect of this double shock is so well known that it is utilized as a technique in a single propaganda by the use of either contradictory news or a tranquilizing propaganda designed to appease the public before launching a great shock that will be felt all the more violently: for example, making propaganda for peace before releasing a violent psychological offensive.] (180-81, emphasis added)
A final psychological effect of propaganda is the appearance of the need for propaganda. The individual subjected to propaganda can no longer do without it. This is a form of “snowballing”: the more propaganda there is, the more the public wants. (182, emphasis added)
But though it is true that after a certain time the individual becomes indifferent to the propaganda content, that does not mean that he has become insensitive to propaganda, that he turns from it, that he is immune. It means exactly the opposite, for not only does he keep buying his newspaper, but he also continues to follow the trend and obey the rules. He continues to obey the catchwords of propaganda, though he no longer listens to it. His reflexes still function. . . He is deeply imbued with the symbols of propaganda; he is entirely dominated and manipulated. He no longer needs to see and read the poster; the simple splash of color is enough to awaken the desired reflexes in him. (183)
The more the individual is captured by propaganda, the more sensitive he is—not to its content, but to the impetus it gives him, to the excitement it makes him feel. The smallest excitement, the feeblest stimulus, activates his conditioned reflexes, awakens the myth, and produces the action that the myth demands. . . . An individual who has arrived at this point has a constant and irresistible need for propaganda. He cannot bear to have it stop. We can readily understand why this is so when we think of his condition.
(a) He lived in anxiety, and propaganda gave him certainty. Now his anxiety doubles at the very instant when propaganda stops. . . .
(b ) Propaganda removed him from his subhuman situation and gave him a feeling of self-importance. It permitted him to assert himself and satisfied his need for active participation. When it stops, he finds himself more powerless than before, with a feeling of impotence all the more intense because he had come to believe in the effectiveness of his actions. He is suddenly plunged into apathy and has no personal way of getting out of it. . . .
(c) Finally, propaganda gave him justification. The individual needs to have this justification constantly renewed. . . . When propaganda ceases, he loses his justification; he no longer has confidence in himself. He feels guilty because under the influence of propaganda he performed deeds that he now dreads or for which he is remorseful. Thus he has even more need for justification. And he plunges into despair when propaganda ceases to provide him with the certainty of his justice and his motives. (184-5)
Egocentricity is the product of the cessation of propaganda—in such fashion that it appears irremediable. Not only egocentric withdrawal, but also genuine nervous or mental troubles—such as schizophrenia, paranoia, and guilt complexes—are sometimes found in those who have been dominated by a propaganda that has ceased. Such individuals must then compensate for the absence of propaganda with psychiatric treatment. These effects could be seen in countries where propaganda suddenly stopped, as in Hitler’s Germany in 1945 or in the United States in 1946, to take two very different examples. (185-6)
The propagandist cannot subject himself to popular judgment and democracy. Finally, the propagandist is privy to all State secrets and acts at the same time to shape opinions: he really has a position of fundamental direction. The combination of these three elements makes the propagandist an aristocrat. It cannot be otherwise. Every democracy that launches propaganda creates in and by such propaganda its own enemy, an aristocracy that may destroy it. (252n, emphasis added)
With the help of propaganda one can do almost anything, but certainly not create the behavior of a free man or, to a lesser degree, a democratic man. A man who lives in a democratic society and who is subjected to propaganda is being drained of the democratic content itself—of the style of democratic life, understanding of others, respect for minorities, re-examination of his own opinions, absence of dogmatism. The means employed to spread democratic ideas make the citizen, psychologically, a totalitarian man. The only difference between him and a Nazi is that he is a “totalitarian man with democratic convictions,” but those convictions do not change his behavior in the least. Such contradiction is in no way felt by the individual for whom democracy has become a myth and a set of democratic imperatives, merely stimuli that activate conditioned reflexes. The word democracy, having become a simple incitation, no longer has anything to do with democratic behavior. And the citizen can repeat indefinitely “the sacred formulas of democracy” while acting like a storm trooper. (256, emphasis added)