Monday, April 04, 2016

contesting S. D. Kelly at Mere Orthodoxy, let's set Derrida aside. Trump could be explained by Jacques Ellul's writing on propaganda and on the activity of the populist agitator

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

Another very curious and recent phenomenon (confirmed by several American sociologists) is the appearance of "agitators". The pure agitator, who stirs public opinion in a "disinterested" fashion, functions as a nationalist. he does not appeal to a doctrine or a principle, he does not propose specific reforms. He is the "true" prophet of the American Way of Life.  Usually he is against the New Deal and for laissez-faire liberalism; against plutocrats, internationalists, and socialists--bankers and Communists alike are the "hateful other party in spite of which well-informed `I' survives." The agitator is especially active in the most unorganized groups of the United States. He uses the anxiety psychoses of the lower middle class, the neo-proletarian, the immigrant, the demobilized soldier, people who are not yet integrated into American society or who have not yet adopted ready-made habits and ideas. The agitator uses the American Way of Life to provoke anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-Negro, and xenophobic currents of opinion. he makes group act in the illogical yet coherent, Manichaean universe of propaganda, of which we will have more to say. The most remarkable thing about this phenomenon is that these agitators do nor work for a political party it is not clear which interests they serve. They are neither Capitalists nor Communists but they deeply influence American public opinion, and their influence may crystalize suddenly in unexpected forms.

Unexpected forms could be what we're seeing not just with the popularity of Trump but also of Sanders. Let's consider for a moment that Ellul's description of the populist agitator in American politics could, with a few caveats I hope are obvious, account for the popularity of both candidates previously mentioned.

Both could be carrying on the tradition of what Ellul described as populist agitation without being strictly Capitalist or Communist, but both can appeal strongly to those who do not feel integrated into the "mainstream" or are persuaded that institutional powers within the mainstream have rigged the game against them.  By contrast, a candidate like Clinton would be appealing to those who in many respects are integrated into the mainstream of American society and are mostly at ease with the power dynamics in play.

Now, certainly, Trump fits this description Ellul had for the populist agitator far more readily and ostentatiously than Sanders.  Since Trump has been a reality TV celebrity for years he even fits into Ellul's description of propagandist as the modern era's newest form of aristocrat.  But what Ellul could not have anticipated is that an agitator within the realm of propaganda could also be a plutocrat. He also did not necessarily seem to anticipate the degree to which populist agitation can foment in a blue state as well as a red state variety.  He certainly foresaw the cultivation of propagandistic idioms and etiological myths of the sort we're seeing on the left and right, though, and also proposed that once these foundational myths took root that those embracing them could endorse the sacred tents of democracy in theory while emotionally, intellectually and spiritually aspiring to a functional totalitarian state, one in which "only" the favored party operated at every level of governance. 

The fan bases for Trump and Sanders respectively, could seem more different on paper than the register of their emotional reactions might demonstrate in advocacy.  Propaganda isn't just about the focal point of emotional loyalties, it's about the all-consuming all-explaining mythic power of a common narrative.  In this respect socialism and capitalism fulfill the same ideological role in the mind of someone immersed in a propagandistic society.  Ellul's warning was that it didn't matter which of these two ideologies you embraced in a society saturated with propaganda (i.e. marketing of all kinds as well as overt political propaganda).  The emotional reaction you would have would be to opt out in fatalistic resignation (hi there! :-) ) or you buy whole hog into one of the competing teams and drink every last gallon of their kool-aid.  Those are the people, more or less, stumping for Sanders or Trump in Ellul's description of the long term sociological impact of propaganda in contemporary states.

Now regular readers already know I've been referencing Ellul's work on the propagandist and propaganda as a lens through which to examine the public career and leadership approach of Mark Driscoll.  Ellul foresaw a substantial risk to the church if it aligned itself with propaganda as a political weapon; and looked back on eras of the church in which its pragmatic alliance with establishment power drained it of vitality and truth.  If the Religious Right has been discovering it has lost its vitality and influence this may be because by aligning itself to establishment interests in the way the mainline Protestant churches did a century earlier, it's coming to a comparably pathetic fate.  Those whose definition of the Christian faith are defined first and foremost through the partisanship of left and right have sold out Christianity to the power-mongering of American politics.  Both sides deserve abject failure there.  And to the extent that the fan bases of Trump and Sanders embrace populist agitators whose policy records do not necessarily give any indication of policy competence on some difficult issues, these respective groups may see themselves as drastically different because of planks in a platform without seeing emotional and social correspondence.  Sure, Led Zeppelin and Justin Bieber are different but the off-the-chain fan can be the same whatever the object of affection may be. 

Based on what Ellul had to say about propagandists the "best case" scenario is that the propagandist is knowingly dishonest; the worst case scenario is if the propagandist genuinely believes his own hype.  That person's going to be so divorced from reality at every level that they're quite possibly just "gone". 


Something that's come to mind since first publishing the post is a comment from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his sermons on the Sermon on the Mount.  When discussing the phrase "salt of the earth" Martyn Lloyd-Jones mentioned (and this was circa 1959-1960) that if the Church spent most of its time denouncing communism all communists would be likely to take away from that is simply noting that Christians liked to denounce communism. He warned that if the Church constantly denounces a subsection of a society they are closing the door to that group of people, which hardly seemed being the salt of the earth. Sin can be as terrible in the capitalist as it is in the communist and both need the gospel.  They're both sinners in the end.  While the Cold War may be over, the caveat seems no less pertinent since debates on the viability of socialism and capitalism haven't exactly vanished.


chris e said...

The Derrida material leaves a lot to be desired and has been comprehensively skewered at various places.

That entire website is starting to resemble a cry of 'whyohwhyohwhy' by some young fogeys (why this personality type is so prevalent in Reformed circles would make an interesting article in itself) before settling on blaming some supposed left-wing shibboleth - in this case 'deconstructionism'.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I saw some pretty spirited objections over at the page itself, that's for sure.

CoffeeMatt said...

I think you're right that Ellul's work provides a better analysis, with less stretching, than bringing up Derrida. I think that Derrida probably gets too many boogeyman gigs and unfortunately, Ellul is just not nearly as well known.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

It's too bad Ellul seems to be so obscure or overlooked because his work seems relevant not just to the election cycles but also, as I've been outlining at length here, to the emergence of megachurch pastors as a kind of aristocratic class that can operate independently of more traditional checks and balances in ecclesial settings. If someone wanted to compare Mark Driscoll and Donald Trump the reference point wouldn't have to be an alleged appeal to authoritarian discourse because Zizek can make pronouncements, after all. But if we say that Driscoll and Trump, in their different ways, can be thought of as what Ellul called the "pure agitator" or as parts of a propagandist aristocracy that makes more sense.

So if Ellul is less well known that's a shame. Not that I'm planning on being an anarchist any time soon, but I can appreciate the writings of someone whose political ideas I don't entirely share. :)