Propaganda and The Political: "The Political Illusion" by Jacques Ellul
We live in a world of images. How does the ephemeral nature of images and the coercive power of propaganda shape the politics of today. Ellul shares insights from his work on the subject.
Propaganda is everywhere. We drown in its images and messaging. It is a constant part of the world we live in, including even the autonomous realm of politics. Before diving into Ellul’s thoughts on the subject in The Political Illusion, it would be good to remind ourselves of his definition of propaganda. It helps clarify for us that propaganda is not first of all about manipulating our thoughts. It desires to shape our actions, demanding our obedience, getting us to serve. Once our actions are aligned, we will change our thoughts to justify what we have done. Action proceeds thought:
“Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in actions of a mass of individuals , psychologically unified through psychological manipulations.”
“Propaganda does not aim to elevate man, but to make him serve.”
It is useful to quickly pull these quotes out and have them in mind as we explore his thoughts on propaganda as they specifically relate to political theory. It is thought that The Political Illusion forms the conclusion to a trilogy beginning with The Technological Society and Propaganda. We find in this work Ellul drawing from the first two books, applying those learnings to politics in specific.
In the previous piece Ellul drew out the autonomous nature of politics, that it follows its own rules and is determined by its own elements. As we move forward into this section we are confronted somewhat with a contradiction. Politics, while it conforms to its own exigencies, does so within a world that is shaped by propaganda. No longer can the political realm operate removed from the people. Democracy. Modern media. They make politics far more immediate, less removed. It is no longer the game of princes. It requires the constant consent of the people. In this there is little difference between a dictatorship or a democracy. The authoritarian regime is as much beholden to public opinion as is a constitutional republic. All regimes today must refer to public opinion and must secure favorable public opinion. All types of government today must form public opinion, unify it and crystalize it in such a way so as to keep it from interfering in the autonomy of the political work in progress.
Propaganda is thus a necessary instrument of political life in the modern world.
Because the masses are now involved in politics and political life, because all things are now politicized and public opinion expresses itself in every area, you cannot govern against the public opinion. In order to secure public opinion at all times, this consent of the public must be manufactured constantly through propaganda.
With that introduction, Ellul takes us into the formation of propaganda and how it works in politics, by brining us to the very beginning so that we will understand the phenomenon properly. This means beginning with, and understanding properly, what a “fact” is. To understand the nature of propaganda, you must first understand a “fact.” Political discourse occurs within a discourse and dialogue about facts. It is an often misunderstood thing. Many think propaganda is about creating lies. It is much the opposite to this. It is about shaping the truth. To understand this distinction, we need to understand what a fact is and what role it has in the propagandist’s hands in shaping the truth.
As a baseline, we need to recognize that we operate in a web of information. Every economic and political fact concerns everyone because of our global interconnectedness in the information age. Secondly, the people are called upon to have an opinion on everything. The most recent and glaring example of this is the need for everyone to have an opinion about the war between Russia and Ukraine. This need gives us our first insight into the nature of a “fact.”
If a “fact” does not command political attention, it ceases to exist, whatever its importance.
It does not matter how true a piece of information is or how relevant it might be to providing context, nuance, counter evidence, or whatever, if it is prevented from capturing the attention of the body politic, this information simply ceases to exist. This shows the importance of who determines the narrative, who determines what the people will focus on and what information will be ignored or “memory-holed.” You do not have to lie when you tell only part of the story. You can use iron clad, fact-checked information when this is the information that is allowed to capture public attention. Selection and attention are the first aspects of propaganda.
Next, we must understand that a “fact” is not simply raw, unfiltered information. It is not raw sensory experience, pure sense data. A fact is sense data that is fixated upon, it is selected, and it is transformed from this raw state into an abstraction. Facts emerge from personal experience through the process of abstraction, such that it can be then communicated to others using words and images. Raw sensory information is too messy and personal to be of any use. Thus it needs to be abstracted and translated such that it can then be communicated. A fact only becomes a “fact” when raw sense data is translated into words and images. Raw sensory experience cannot be communicated. It is useless. It is only once it is carried into the realm of language or images that it becomes useful.
A “fact” is an abstract representation of reality.
Political Facts and Mass Media
A fact becomes political when it is taken into account, noticed and used by the government or a political power group. This, combined with the attention of the general public makes a regular fact into a political fact. What the public does not recognize as a fact has no political significance. Ellul notes that in an authoritarian regime it is much easier to obliterate facts than it is in a society with a free and properly functioning press. This same phenomenon can occur in a democratic regime when the public is not alerted to facts that the government finds important. In today’s western context, this is one of prime functions of the regime friendly media. Facts that the powerful want highlighted are highlighted. Facts that they want ignored are ignored.
Ellul argues that there is no solving this problem. It is simply not possible to get all the facts out there. You cannot simply give out all the information. Without focus, it lacks meaning. Without focus, facts cannot become political. Focus means directing attention to some facts over other facts. There is no way to solve this problem. More information actually hampers and impedes the political process rather than helping create transparency. It would paralyze the system as no one would know where to direct their attention. You cannot just give out all the information and let the people decide.
Information is not enough. It must be distilled into political facts. But attention on one political fact, drives out all the other previous political facts. We are not omniscient beings, all knowing and able to hold all things in our minds at once. Every fact to which we are asked to attend drives out all the other political facts and they are forgotten. Not only that, but many pieces of information are put out that never penetrate the public consciousness and so never become political facts.
Information alone never produces public opinion on a subject. Public opinion, that is, those facts which stay with and arouse the public can often be a mysterious secret, something that forms and reforms itself. Information on its own often lacks the intensity or duration that is needed to form an opinion or polarize attention. This is the role of propaganda.
“Only propaganda can make a fact arouse public opinion, only propaganda can force the crowd’s wandering attention to become fixed on some event.”
Only propaganda can transform individual experiences into public opinion. Propaganda creates the feeling of importance that makes everyone fixate upon a subject. There are no facts which are important in and of themselves. Facts only have political importance because public opinion has seized upon them. In the age of media, a fact has no importance of its own. But once seized by a fact through propaganda, its power is tremendous:
“Those who are filled with propaganda stereotypes can never be reached by logical proof or exact fact. They deny the facts and reject them as “propaganda” because these facts jeopardize prejudices that have become part of their personality.”
Ellul argues that there is no such thing as an “objective” fact in an age of mass media and propaganda. “Facts” only exist within the realm of political attention and propaganda. This is not a real universe. At the same time it is not a universe of lies. Rather, it must be seen as a universe of fiction, of stories. That which is part of the the narrative has reality. Propaganda makes it increasingly difficult to simply encounter the real world, as it is. Everything is encountered within a narrative.
We live in a world where everything is translated into words and images. Even when words are used, they are used to tell a story, to create a word picture. These images and word pictures constitute the world within which we live. It is globe spanning. This is the “facts” of our life. We no longer have any direct relationship to reality. We all live within an interpretive story created for us through the words and pictures of propaganda.
The power of mass media is that it is able to bypass and break down the ability of mediating institutions to provide a buffer against the influence of propaganda. The media can speak directly to people, reaching past the protective armor of churches and other associations that have their own narratives, eroding their power and breaking them down. What power can Bible stories have when compared to the power of CNN or the New York Times? Mass man stands alone, spoken to directly through mass media. He is at once alone and yet part of the crowd, the mass. This dynamic produces a confusion in the individual between his own person and that of the collective. At the same time, the integrity of the person dissolves such that he can no longer tell what is within and without, what are his thoughts and what are thoughts of the propagandist, what is real and what is not.
He lives in the mass media world, his own sense of self floating in a sea of ever changing facts, words and images. Mass media forces out all facts other than those gained through mass media. Individual and local concerns no longer matter. Only mass concerns matter. Only what is on TV matters. Only what is on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram matters. Local and personal reality is experienced through the lens of mass media.
This disconnect between us and local reality allows for a stream of ever shifting narratives to shape who we are. We live in a world of images and stories that float freely, connected to nothing. We are without grounding and nothing anchors our perceptions. Our life is lived within this world of images and stories. We witness directly a real event and then check our phones or go home and turn on the TV to see if the event shows up on the news or in our feeds, this making it somehow more real than our first person encounter with the actual event itself. What has been converted to images and narrative is what is real. This is the facts of life. The power of propaganda is to make something out of nothing. Propaganda is like the magicians wand, making issues appear and disappear with the wave of a wand.
All political problems and questions arise within this world of propaganda. No crisis is actually a true problem unless we have been made aware of it through propaganda. Once public opinion has been formed and fixed around an issue, it can no longer be given a careful, peaceful, nuanced solution. Propaganda demands clear, bold images. It thrives on contrast, not compromise. All solutions in the world of propaganda must be bold, even extreme.
Only propaganda makes a problem a problem. No problem exists in and of itself. It must be noticed, fixated upon and elevated by propaganda for it to seize the attention of public opinion. And once public opinion is fixed on a problem, this problem must have a “solution.” This solution is very often technical, involving the advice and plans of expert administrators. Thus propaganda’s drive for solutions aligns it with the core interests of the administrative state.
Propaganda is so insidious that when two propagandas are at work, that is the initial propaganda and the counter-propaganda, this actually increases our attention on the problem. Counter-messaging does not destroy or cancel a problem. Counter-propaganda does not undermine the initial propaganda which it is attacking. It actually strengthens the initial propaganda, making its solution even more urgent.
This is one of those realities of propaganda that are hard for people engaged in ideological battles to grasp. Your counter-attacks do not weaken the initial propaganda. When propaganda sets the terms of the debate, all responses to the initial propaganda simply strengthen its position because it strengthens the urgency for the powers to act and implement a solution.
We must understand that propaganda is a form of violence, psychological and spiritual violence. A propaganda war, a war over narrative and images, is very much a war and must be understood in these terms. If you are always responding to the dominant propaganda of the regime, you are actually strengthening its position. You think that your counter-propaganda is an action of refuting the “lies” of the government and its allies; but, by always reacting, you strengthen its position because you increase its justification for action. Its agenda gains more potency through your objection. If you wish to win the propaganda war, you need to be on the offensive, setting the terms of the debate, making the regime react to your propaganda. The recent attack on the regime over “groomers” is such an example.
This is the real power of the main stream media outlets. They set the agenda and establish the narrative. This means that they are continually dictating the battlefield and the terms of the battle. The result is that every reaction, every bit of counter-propaganda is actually strengthening the position of the regime, in that it heightens the urgency that something be done to solve the problem at hand. By fighting the regime on its propaganda terms, you give it the justification for continually extending its reach and influence. The opposition shows the urgency for doing something and doing it now.
In this respect, the Republican party leadership’s desire to get issues “off the table” is not terrible in theory. It is just awful in its execution. Getting issues off the table by giving in to your opponents demands is just justification for continual losing. If you wish to stop talking about something to create the space to go on the offensive and set the terms of the debate, that might not be the worst idea. But constantly reacting to and battling the narrative of the regime is also a losing strategy, one of constant, slow retreat. Once you have two equally potent propagandas at play, the issue will become the “hatred” that they engender.
This also shows the importance of controlling the major media outlets. It is also why Fox News has never been as effective as people expected it to be. It has over the years either spent too much time reacting to what the “mainstream” is doing, or it has allowed itself to be slowly co-opted by the narrative of the propagandists. The only media figures that the regime, The Cathedral, truly fears are those figures and those outlets which can set the terms of the debate. This is why Tucker Carlson is so feared and loathed. The same for Christopher Rufo. The regime outlets also fear losing control of Twitter. Even though the “dissident” portions of the app represent a small total of the overall traffic, the ability for ideas to go viral and the ability for small participants to successfully do battle with regime propagandists makes Twitter a point of vulnerability for the main propaganda message. Even if much of the traffic still focuses on the agenda of the propagandists, that of the collective hive mind of the “blue checks,” the idea that any small account has the potential to establish a narrative to which they must react cannot be tolerated. If left alone, it represents a real threat. Hence the largely successful effort to co-opt the platform’s management, bringing them on board with shutting down potentially problematic accounts. The idea that Elon Musk might allow more latitude for open speech represents an existential threat to their near total control of public words and images.
All this aside, we must take to heart Ellul’s key observations in this regard. Propaganda is the control of words and images, determining which words and which images will be allowed. These words and images determine what experiences are permitted to become facts and which experiences are ignored and thus cease to exist. There is the temptation to see this process as somehow not real. This is a mistake. Propaganda must be seen as a form of violence against the masses. We think of the news as “information.” It should be be seen as a form of assault against the people. News as propaganda is psychological violence. Perhaps the best way to understand dissident speech in a world saturated with propaganda, then, is that of guerrilla warfare. The purpose of guerrilla warfare is to make the regime react to targeted attacks. Hit and run. Destabilize. Make the cost of occupation too high. If we are reacting to messaging of the regime, we are forever battling on their terms, strengthening their hold over the narrative, their hold on power.
The politician must work within this world of propaganda. There is often a disconnect between the information available to political insiders and that which the public is aware of. When politicians act on information known only to them, they constantly risk that their actions will be condemned by propaganda generated by their opponents, fixating upon and crystalizing public opinion around these “secret” actions. In today’s context, the common man cannot tolerate feeling like they are being excluded from the decisions of government. The idea of democratic participation creates a desire within the citizen that he needs to have had a say in any and all government actions.
This creates a dilemma. It is impossible for any government to be truly effective if it shares all of its information with the voting public. Effectiveness demands that certain issues and specific information must be kept hidden from the general public. What is the regime to do? It could give full public disclosure all the time. Lay all its cards on the table. Complete transparency with the voting public. As an ideal, it sounds wonderful. In practice, this is suicidal. It would expose the state and the people to risk and dangers from foreign enemies. It is often counterproductive both domestically and internationally to share all one’s information. Information can give the enemies of the state leverage. There is a reason you keep your cards hidden in poker. There is a reason you don’t share the terms you are willing to accept in a negotiation. If you do, you can never hope to better your position.
This means that the government must resign itself to not disclosing information it has and risk public criticism over being secretive. To be effective, the government must risk public criticism over its lack of full transparency in the decision making processes of government. Some things must be done out of public scrutiny in order for government to be effective. But in so doing, it may lose public confidence. To be effective, a government must have the trust of the people to act in secret on their behalf.
The third option is for the state to continue to do things in secret, but rather than ask for the trust of the people, the government manufactures consent through the use of propaganda. This creates a divergence between the “facts” as they exist in the realm of propaganda, the words and images used to justify the actions of the regime in order to manufacture consent, and how the facts of these actions would be understood if full disclosure were to happen.
Ellul argues that authoritarian regimes typically use the third option to manufacture the consent of the people and that proper functioning democratic systems use option number two. The idea of democracy is that the government has the consent and trust of the people before hand to act in secret on their behalf. An authoritarian government does not seek the consent of the people, but rather manufactures it through the use of propaganda. Looking at these three options, though, it is hard to escape the conclusion that our so-called democratic states in the age of mass media are in fact actually authoritarian in nature. They use propaganda to manufacture consent for their actions. This draws us back to the observation made in a previous piece that one of the ways you know that “democracy” is in a perilous state is that it is talked about incessantly. We hear constantly about threats to democracy and what needs to be done to support democracy. Very often these “solutions” are authoritarian fixes for the perceived threats to democracy. Typically, they are not so much a threat to the working out of democracy in practice; but, rather, are threats to the current regime that are then framed as threats to democracy itself.
An observation Ellul makes is that in a democracy with a functioning press, the government is not permitted to manufacture consent through propaganda. That the press in the west has been co-opted by the elites, and has come to share its aspirations for a globally managed system which they hope will eliminate all human problems through the application of technique, means that there is no check on the state’s use of propaganda to manufacture consent. In fact, it has been observed that the major media outlets tend to provide a megaphone effect for narratives it wants promoted and it is also able to ensure that certain stories inconvenient for the regime are simply ignored. What this means in practice is that without a properly functioning media committed to challenging the propaganda of the politicians, the west has effectively become functionally authoritarian in spite of its democratic trappings. We can safely assert this because the state only minimally has to seek the consent of the people in advance of its actions. With an aligned press, it can safely manufacture consent like an authoritarian regime, knowing that these efforts will be supported by an ideologically sympathetic media. Part of the role of this propaganda is to make people feel like they live in a democracy. This is essential.
In this environment, all political action now must conform itself to the facts as known by public opinion which has been created and shaped by propaganda. The state must be seen as acting in accord with public opinion. Public opinion is manufactured by propaganda, and then government now acts in accord with that state of public opinion. The actions of the state always follow the lead of the propaganda.
This is also why a truly “spontaneous” event of public opinion like the Canadian trucker protest against Covid-19 vaccine mandates which has not been manufactured by regime propaganda is so dangerous. It is also why the January 6 protest in the US was so threatening. Neither of these events followed the lead of state propaganda. Both threatened the stability of their propaganda narrative and in so doing threatened the regime’s ability to act in accord with its own narrative. Once the story is challenged in this manner—the spontaneous counter narrative setting the terms of the debate—this undermines the facts which justify the actions of the state. Because regime action follows the context created by propaganda, any truly effective counter-messaging that is able to establish the terms of the narrative effectively limits, hampers or even determines the direction that state action must take. We saw this in Canada after the trucker protest. Mask and vaccine mandates were rapidly dropped because sustaining them was no longer in line with public opinion. All government action must follow public opinion. It also a tell for the astute political watcher that a protest is not really a protest when it follows after or occurs simultaneously with the narrative of the regime or the ideologically aligned media. Anything that reinforces or extends the story of the facts upon which state action is built and justified is a positive for the regime.
We must take this a step further. Not only is a a political action’s effectiveness dependent upon its alignment with public opinion shaped by propaganda, all political action must be conceived with two objects in mind. First, there is the primary object to be obtained in the actions of the military, the administration or with the economy. Secondly, all of these actions need to be conducted understanding their effect upon the narrative and the propaganda possibilities afforded by this action. Propaganda allows for government action, that then creates more propaganda possibilities.
The politician or administrative state senior official must ask whether or not any decision will have results that reach public opinion. Will the public become aware of the decision? Secondly, they must ask whether a decision has within it an element that can be allowed to develop such that further propaganda opportunities will arise spontaneously from the original decision. Will opinion be favorable to the initial action? If not, how can the effects of the original action be shaped so as to benefit the propaganda narrative. Every action must live within the reality established by propaganda, must reinforce it or extend it. Finally, can any action of the state lead to further propaganda? The propaganda potential of every action must be accounted for in the initial decision.
Today, political decisions are more important for their effect on public opinion than for their practical and objective significance. Every political decision must be judged in relation to its propagandistic repercussions. We must understand that the objective success or failure of any government action is irrelevant. Completely, totally irrelevant. It does not matter if masks and vaccines actually stop Covid-19 or not. What matters is whether or not the decision to implement mandates can be used for further propaganda to manufacture the consent of the citizenry. Every political action is now judged in relationship to its propagandistic repercussions.
This is often the mistake that conservatives make. They have a belief that only real world results matter, that these results should be the facts that determine the legitimacy of a regime or not. Are you objectively reducing poverty with your poverty reduction program? Are you objectively improving race relations with your anti-racism efforts? Are you winning the wars you are engaged in? Are these wars actually furthering the interests of the nation? None of these questions “objectively” matter. There are no “objective” facts. There is only the reality that can be created through propaganda. Which experiences are noticed and become part of the narrative and which are ignored?
Even catastrophic failures which you would think should topple a regime can further the ends of the government as long as they can be used propagandistically to develop the narrative that will manufacture and crystalize public opinion in favor of the state. The only true disaster would be the crumbling of the narrative. This is why thy left spends so much time shaping words and images through the media, including social media. Conservatives laugh at liberals who think tweeting will change the world. But it is the conservatives who are mistaken. Those tweets shape the facts that coalesces public opinion that then allows the government to act freely in accordance with that general feeling of the masses. Actions must be created from the beginning so that if it succeeds, then great, that is a win. The actual concrete success allows further propaganda to be built off the success. But if the government action fails, it must be still used to further the cause, to further the propaganda narrative.
The value of propaganda is that it allows the state to be coercive without having to resort to the messiness of physical violence. Every political approach that is not entirely propagandistic in nature is now outmoded. Politics now operates exclusively in a world of words and images and all political actions must operate within and conform to the rules of propaganda. All political action must succeed within this world of words and images or not at all. All political plans and options must have and present this character. How will it affect the narrative? Politicians must work within this world of images.
Public opinion can no longer express itself freely and spontaneously. Public opinion cannot be allowed to express itself and thus force the government into an action that is not initiated by the government itself. But at the same time, this creates opportunities. Because the government must create and shape public opinion through propaganda, it is no longer able to know actual public opinion. This is why, to astute observers, the government perpetually seems out of touch with the people. At the same time, it also cuts people off from their own opinions. Because they are so used to be having their feelings shaped by propaganda, they can no longer access their own opinions. Thus we arrive at a situation where neither the government or the people are actually able to deal with real world problems or wield power in a way that is connected to the real world, as it is.
If the government and the populace are both cut off from each other and reality by the propagandist, this then makes the shaper of propaganda the real power in society. Those who control and shape the narrative are those who shape and control the state. The political illusion is that we believe we can alter reality through the exercise of political power, and that the key is to master and control the state by participating in the political game. Neither citizen nor government matter in a world of propaganda, for the true master is the one who controls the narrative: the propagandist. This is why we now hear the phrase, “a media run state.” This is also why losing complete control of an outlet like Twitter gives the propagandists such fits. Control of the narrative is control of the state and the population.
“If, in appearance, the propagandist represents in liberal democracy, the ‘expression of freedom of information,’ he is in reality a technician with very little concern for the citizens, being rather a representative of political or economic powers in whose interest he will shape opinion.”
The ones for whom the press, the media, are shaping the narrative, these are the true masters of society. Because public opinion is now shaped by propaganda and all government action must align with public opinion, the one for whom the propagandist is shaping his message is the true power in our societies. All else is illusion.
Up next: Ellul pierces the illusion that we can actually exercise control over the state. Caesar is not coming to save you. Getting your people in to run things will not change the essential character of the administrative state. Sorry.