Saturday, May 28, 2016

Ellul on the effectivenss of "horizontal propaganda" in the mid-20th century--which is now easily made at grass roots levels on any social media platform in use

Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 1965 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7

page 81
This propaganda can be called horizontal because it is made inside the group (not from the top), where, in principle, all individuals are equal and there is no leader. ... But the most remarkable characteristic of horizontal propaganda is the small group. The individual participates actively in the life of this group, in a genuine and lively dialogue.

page 82

Vertical propaganda needs the huge apparatus of the mass media of communication; horizontal propaganda needs a huge organization of people.

A member of a small group must not belong to other groups in which he would be subjected to other influences; that would give him a chance to find himself again and, with it, the strength to resist.

page 84
Horizontal propaganda thus is very hard to make (particularly because it needs so many instructors), but it is exceptionally efficient through its meticulous encirclement of everybody, through the effective participation of all present, and through their public declarations of adherence. It is particularly a system that seems to coincide perfectly with egalitarian societies claiming to be based on the will of the people and calling themselves democratic [emphasis added]; each group is composed of persons who are alike and one actually can formulate the will of such a group. But all this is ultimately much more stringent and totalitarian than explosive propaganda. Thanks to this system, Mao has succeeded in passing from subversive propaganda to integration propaganda.

Ellul, of course ,was writing half a century ago.  Horizontal propaganda now is very easily created in the age of the internet.  What seemed difficult to accomplish in Ellul's time is now just another day on Facebook. 

Let's do a thought experiment in 2016--if you're in the United States and you happen to think the fate of the nation would be best off if one party ran every aspect of government at the top levels then, congratulations, you're a totalitarian.  The Americans left and right who seem most fretful that the other team will somehow set up a totalitarian regime seem to have few problems about doing things that would set one up if the cause is their cause.  Americans are already in many respects totalitarians at heart and the debates can in one sense be construed not as a debate about whether we will ultimately embrace totalitarianism but what KIND of totalitarian activities we will tolerate or promote in the cause of what we've told ourselves is democracy.

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.

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. [emphasis added]

That religion doesn't need a deity, it just needs you to do something with ever greater consistency for the salvation of yourself, your society and then ultimately the whole world.  That sounds like voter behavior in our election cycles. The civic religions of the red state and blue state voters have no need of any specific deity so much as commitment to a particular variation of democracy not as a mode of governance but as what Ellul called an etiological myth.  It's not about the gods or a lack thereof, it's about reliably predictable ideologically motivated behavior.

In other words, we could say that angry white progressives and reactionaries here in 2016 can either feel the Bern or want to make America great again but both groups could be thinking in essentially propagandistic terms (kind of like anyone and everyone in the election cycle, but these two candidates and their respective posses most easily reflect the kinds of dynamics Ellul was addressing half a century ago). There's no need to doubt that for people this year the outcome of the electionis being cast in the most apocalyptic and cataclysmic terms.  If the wrong person gets the Oval Office it's being cast as the end of life as we know it. Ellul had a warning for us that when a society has reached this kind of point it may have the outward trappings of democratic process but be full of people who are totalitarians at heart:

page 256
... 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.
So welcome to Twitter, Facebook, etc, etc.

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