Notes on Propaganda by Jacques Ellul
Vintage Books Edition, 1973. This book was originally published in French as Propagandes in 1962.
Purposes of propaganda:
i) Psychological action: to modify opinions.
ii) Psychological warfare: to destroy the opponent’s morale, to cause him to “doubt the validity of his beliefs …”.
iii) Reeducation and brainwashing methods for prisoners (see Appendix 2 on Mao).
iv) Public and human relations: to “adapt” a person to a type of society, or to a “living standard” or to an “activity”… (pg. xiii).
Main Goal: Provoke Action without Thought
The goal of propaganda in modern times is to “provoke action”, to “arouse an active and mythical belief” (25). Myth has the power to drive people to action, as opposed to passive ideology (116). Effective propaganda short-circuits “all thought and decision” (27).
The “great feat of propaganda is to cause the progression from thought to action artificially” (208).
In our jobs, we don’t think for ourselves. Our actions are mechanized (28). Schedules, rules and patterns are imposed on the worker for efficiency. Instead of thinking, the individual dissociates, which effects other parts of his life (180).
Propaganda is Totalitarian
Propaganda is practiced by an “aristocracy of technicians” (241). The propagandist studies our behavior and applies formulas (3). Psychological theories are tested via propaganda (5), including “the conditioned reflex and the myth” (31).
Man is “surrounded” by propaganda. No part of his life is left alone (10). It takes over “every moment” of his life (17). He adopts a “totalitarian attitude” because the action of propaganda is totalitarian. It “excludes contradiction and discussion”. Opposition must become “negligible” (11).
Propaganda “will take over literature (present and past) and history …” (14).
“Every event in our society supposes the allegiance or approval of all, and such participation in mind or action can be obtained only by propaganda. The fact that it is utilized in so many different fields shows that our society is in the process of becoming a total society, e.g. a society in which no single act can be a matter of indifference; every act and feeling assumes a political character; no act is purely personal” (290).
Pre-propaganda and Education
Pre-propaganda or conditioning is necessary for propaganda to work. (15) Education conditions the young (vi, 13, 84). Learning to read prepares you for propaganda (108, 109). To be free, you must be able to think critically about what you read (108).
Propaganda Adapts us to the Technological Society
“Propaganda is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments, and to integrate the individual into a technological world” (xvii).
The goal is to adjust “the normal man to a technological environment – to the increasing pace, the working hours, the noise, the crowded cities, the tempo of work, … never-changing daily routine, the lack of personal accomplishment, the absence of an apparent meaning in life, the family insecurity … the anonymity…” (143).
Other reasons for propaganda: helping modern man to accept an all-pervasive work-life, enormous taxes and brutal wars (140-142).
“As in all propaganda, the point is to make man endure, with the help of psychological narcotics, what he could not endure naturally …” (225).
“In the midst of increasing mechanization and technological organization, propaganda is simply the means used to prevent these things from being felt as too oppressive and to persuade man to submit with good grace. When man will be fully adapted to this technological society, when he will end by obeying with enthusiasm, convinced of the excellence of what he is forced to do, the constraint of the organization will no longer be felt by him …” (xviii).
The man “immersed in current affairs” is “at the mercy of the propagandist”. News propaganda must not permit “time for thought or reflection” (46, 47).
Pure information can be propaganda (113). The reader is hypnotized by data which eliminates “personal judgment and the capacity to form one’s own opinion …” (87).
Propaganda presents “solutions” to the “problems” presented as information (114).
Isolation, Weakening of Old Groups, Use of New Groups
In modern society, man is most vulnerable to propaganda when he feels isolated in the mass (8, 9, 90).
Mao’s objective was to detach individuals “from the old groups, such as the family or traditional village organizations. These groups must be disintegrated …” (308). Then his next objective was to use “horizontal propaganda” to encircle everyone (84) with the new groups (81), integrating individuals into the new society.
Old groups are fragmented by psychological propaganda. “Only when very small groups are thus annihilated, when the individual finds no more defenses, no equilibrium, no resistance exercised by the group to which he belongs, does total action by propaganda become possible” (9)
“…A private and heterogeneous group (with different ages, sexes, and occupations), the family is a tremendous obstacle to such propaganda. In China, where the family was still very powerful, it had to be broken up. The problem is very different in the United States and in the Western societies; there the social structures are sufficiently flexible and disintegrated to be no obstacle. … the family already is broken up. The field is clear for the influence of small groups” (82,83).
Propaganda creates “micro-groups” with strong “conviction”. These help “crystallize opinion” (204). The new groups replacing the older groups are artificial and superficial. “They are not really groups of resistance against mass influence … such new groups cannot be real obstacles to total propaganda … They are instruments of propaganda” (97).
When strong propaganda in a group stops, the group and the individual members disintegrate and withdraw socially (185, 170).
He claims the U.S. wanted to unify its population at the end of the 19th century and that the solution was “psychological standardization” (68). There couldn’t be a consumer society of mass consumption “without widespread identical views as to what the necessities of life are”. You need “fundamental psychological unity” so that advertising can have predictable results (68).
The Marshall Plan had “propaganda elements, such as the spreading of American products and films … in 1948, subsidies of fifteen million dollars were poured into American publications appearing in Europe. The French edition of the New York Herald Tribune stated that it received important sums in Marshall credits for the purpose of making American propaganda. Along with reviews specializing in propaganda, such as France-Amerique, and with film centers and libraries sponsored by the Americans in Europe, we should include the Reader’s Digest… ” (69,70).
Public Opinion and Politics:
“The point is to make the masses demand of the government what the government has already decided to do” (132).
He gives the example of the creation of the Common Market (now the EU): “If the Common Market is wanted, a unit must be set up to psychologically prepare the people for the Common Market” (119).
He says that if the ruler wants to “follow secret policies, he must present a decoy to the masses. He cannot escape the mass, but he can draw between himself and that mass an invisible curtain, a screen, on which the mass will see projected the mirage of some politics, while the real politics are being made behind it” (122).
Overt propaganda is “only a façade to capture the attention of individuals and neutralize their instinct to resist, while other individuals, behind the scenes, work on public opinion in a totally different direction, seeking to arouse very different reactions, utilizing even existing resistance to overt propaganda” (16).
“The secret element can be a theoretically independent “faction,” a network of rumors, and so on” (16).
Propaganda Closes Minds
Propaganda plays off a group against other groups (212). Reading the literature of your own group reinforces your allegiance to your group and its ideas, and the evil of the opposing faction (213).
“Thus, we see before our eyes how a world of closed minds establishes itself, a world in which everybody talks to himself, everybody constantly reviews his own certainty about himself and the wrong done him by the Others – a world in which nobody listens to anybody else, everybody talks, and nobody listens. And the more one talks, the more one isolates oneself, because the more one accuses others and justifies himself” (214).
The people are mentally lazy. They need “simple thoughts, elementary explanations, a “key” that will permit them to take a position, and even ready-made opinions” (140).
Effective propaganda gives man an “all-embracing view of the world” and an “explanation for all happenings” (146,147).
Propaganda eliminates self-doubt and builds a one-dimensional person who moves ahead with full confidence he is right (165).
Propaganda limits the “field of thought”. The propagandee is “alienated”, meaning that he is “deprived of one’s self”. He “obeys someone else” (169).
Man becomes modified in a way where he “demands simple solutions, catchwords, certainties, continuity, commitment, a clear and simple division of the world into Good and Evil … He cannot bear ambiguity” (255).
Propaganda can be very inconsistent. Subconsciously a person may notice the party line changing, but it is too painful for him to question the “new truth” (19, 20).
The “cult of the hero”: “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” (172).
The propagandee “accepts being a child; he ceases to defend his own interests” (173).
The propagandee “always takes the easy way … But even while coasting downhill, he claims he is climbing uphill and performing a personal, heroic act. For propaganda has aroused his energy, personality, and sense of responsibility – or rather their verbal images, because the forces themselves were long ago destroyed by propaganda. This duplicity is propaganda’s most destructive act” (178)
It would take “years of intellectual and spiritual education” to restore the faculties of critical thought and personal judgment that are destroyed by propaganda (170).
a) Propaganda provides certainty. He is anxious without it.
b) He feels self-important rather than sub-human.
c) Propaganda gives him justification (185).
“Mithridatization”: the individual doesn’t need to read an article or even look at a poster. He agrees with it already just by the color or title.
“Sensibilization”: constant need for propaganda. The slightest amount of it makes him excited. He doesn’t believe in it consciously. He is all action, purely irrational (183, 184)
Propaganda Dominates Over Truth
Ideology isn’t taken seriously unless it’s backed by propaganda (201). In other words, if people don’t hear a point of view in the mainstream media, it doesn’t exist for them.
Ellul discusses torture as used in the Algerian war as an example of propaganda and action dominating over those with moral objections: “… it is well known that the most ardent defenders of P. H. Simon (a young lieutenant who exposed the practice of torture during that war) defended him only verbally and when they could afford to: once they were in combat, plunged into action, such “ideas” were relegated to a secondary level …” And then self-justifying military propaganda accusing the other side of torture took over (201).
Danger of Using Propaganda to Promote Religion or Defend Democracy
If the Church uses propaganda to disseminate Christianity, it’s not Christianity (230). It becomes “institutionalized in all its expressions and compromised in all its actions”. It chooses “power above truth” (231). Comment: Regardless of the truth of a religion, the point is that propaganda dilutes efforts to proclaim spiritual or other kinds of truth.
Can democracy survive the use of propaganda for well-intentioned motives? When using propaganda, we “destroy the possibility of building true democracy” (245). Propaganda is “undoubtedly the most formidable power, acting in only one direction (toward the destruction of truth and freedom) … ” (257). “Once democracy becomes the object of propaganda, it also becomes totalitarian…” (249).