Saturday, March 05, 2016

Ellul on the use of propaganda to transform democracy from a mode of governance into an etiological myth and the totalitarian tendency in that process

Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 195 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7

page 244
... any operation that transforms democracy into a myth transforms the democratic ideal. Democracy was not meant to be a myth. ... Let us merely say that democracy cannot be an object of faith, of belief: it is expression of opinions. There is a fundamental difference between regimes based on opinion and regimes based on belief. [emphasis added]

To make a myth of democracy is to present the opposite of democracy.

page 247
We have seen how all propaganda develops the cult of personality. This is particularly true in a democracy. There one exalts the individual, who refuses to be anonymous, rejects the "mass," and eschews mechanization. He wants a human regime where men are human beings. ... To be sure, the object at this level is not idolatry, but idolatry cannot fail to follow if the propaganda is done well. Whether such idolatry is given to a man in uniform bursting with decorations, or a man in work shirt and cap, or a man wearing a business suit and soft hat makes no difference; those are simple adaptatio
ns of propaganda to the feelings of the masses.

It doesn't matter whether the cult of personality is around Trump or Sanders or Clinton or some other candidate.

page 249
... Once democracy becomes the object of propaganda, it also becomes totalitarian, authoritarian, and exclusive as dictatorship.

pages 249-250
... This really is the ultimate problem: democracy is not just a certain form of political organization or simply an ideology--it is, first of all, a certain view of life and a form of behavior. If democracy were only a form of political organization, there would be no problem; propaganda could adjust to it. ... But if democracy is a way of life, composed of tolerance, respect, degree, choice, diversity, and so on, all propaganda that acts on behavior and feelings and transforms them in depth turns man into someone who can no longer support democracy because he no longer follows democratic behavior.

Now in the 1960s it's hardly lost on any of us, half a century later, there was still a whole lot of racism and sexism and so on.  Even so, if we live in an era in which someone could wistfully pine for a world in which there could be sixteen consecutive years of all Republican or Democratic governance, if we have people who presume that whoever the other team has can't and doesn't have anything but bad ideas then in the age of the internet we've got people whose only acceptable understanding of whatever democracy is has calcified into a civic religion that is either red or blue.  Some of them will bend over backwards to ensure that whatever formal religion they espouse more adequately meshes with their economic and political convictions.  Ellul, though he may have dropped the ball in assuming just how tolerant people were, may have been forecasting politics in the age of Facebook with this next point.

pages 251-252
But the creation of the etiological myth leads to an obligation on the part of democracy to become religious. It can no longer be secular but must create its religion. Besides, the creation of a religion is one of the indispensable elements of effective propaganda. [emphasis added] The content of this religion is of little importance; these feelings are used to integrate the masses into the national collective. We must not delude ourselves: when one speaks to us of "massive democracy" and "democratic participation," these are only veiled terms that mean "religion." Participation and unanimity have always been characteristics of religious societies, and only of religious societies.

The narratives of the rise of the radical right or the left can serve as remarkably robust stand-ins for a Fall narrative a la Genesis 3.  Gather around children and let me tell you how the evil Democrats/Republics/socialists/capitalists destroyed a cosmic harmony that never really existed but that we will posit we could arrive at if you vote the way we think you should.  There may well be blue state and red state forms of civic Christianity but to those ends Christ has been invoked to underwrite a progressive or conservative aim that is thoroughly American in its interests.  To turn to Sanders or Clinton or Trump or anyone else at this point is to identify your idol. Americans who take to the internet seem eager, too eager, to ensure that the version of Jesus that is the real Jesus (however we'll define that) is one that fits their aims. 

But then a corresponding move happens even in completely secular terms. The god is replaced with confidence in mass behavioral paradigms, whether socialism or capitalism.  The core is not necessarily less totalitarian in emotional impetus for eschewing deities.

page 254-255
The individual is seized, manipulated, attacked from every side; the combatants of two propaganda systems do not fight each other, but try to capture him
... An additional effect of contradictory propaganda is that the individual will escape either into passivity or into total and unthinking support of one of the two sides.
It is striking to see how this current, which is the point of departure of totalitarian parties, is beginning to take hold in the United States. These two different reactions--passivity or total commitment--are completely antidemocratic. But they are the consequence of some democratic types of propaganda. He is the hub of the problem. Propaganda ruins not only democratic ideas but also democratic behavior--the foundation of democracy, the very quality without which it cannot exist.

It seems Ellul was right to warn that democracy is a form of governance would not be able to withstand regular deployment of propaganda, and that democracy as a form of governance might find its most terrible adversary not so much in alternative political paradigms in real-world practice but in the transformation of democratic life into a foundational myth. Democracy as a religious faith absent any belief in a deity might be the real problem. Everybody wants to believe in democracy until, as Ellul put it, people pick stuff that people with democratic ideals don't want.  Ellul dryly remarked that the people who seem most perplexed and incensed that anyone would pick something not democratic as they see it are the Anglo-Saxon democratic types.  Nobody was more shocked that not everyone wanted democratic life than WASPs.

Over the last twenty years I've heard some conservatives say that Bill Clinton was going to suspend the Constitution, declare martial law and declare a national emergency in which he'd be leader for life.  Of course Bill Clinton came and went.  Then George W. Bush ended up in office and as his time neared an end I'd hear some others say that Bush was going to suspend the Constitution, declare martial law and declare a national emergency in which he'd be leader for life. Somehow that didn't quite happen, either. But what did happen was that people on the red and blue sides convinced themselves that the other team was all set to transform America into a totalitarian state.

What if those are the kinds of people who in their emotional and intellectual lives are already making the United States, in some peculiar domain of the heart, a totalitarian state? The scapegoats may change but scapegoating doesn't.

page 256
... With propaganda one can lead citizens to the voting booth, where they seemingly elect their representatives. But if democracy corresponds to a certain type of human being, to a certain individual behavior, then propaganda destroys the point of departure of the life of a democracy, destroys its very foundations. It creates a man who is suited to a totalitarian society, who is not at ease except when integrated in the mass, who rejects critical judgments, choices and differentiations because he clings to clear certainties. He is a man assimilated into uniform groups and wants it that way.
... 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 makes 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.

Think of it, that was published in 1965 and Ellul hadn't even lived long enough to see people talking about politics on Facebook!

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