The Heroic Struggle for Self-Government: "The Political Illusion" by Jacques Ellul
Ellul has helped us break the spell of the illusion which has been cast over our eyes. What are we to do with this new clarity, now that we see our situation?
This is the fifth and final piece in an ongoing series on Jacques Ellul’s book, The Political Illusion. Part one can be found here: “The Necessary and the Ephemeral.” Part two can be read here: “The Autonomy of Politics.” Part three is linked to here: “Propaganda and the Political.” Follow this link to read part four: “The Administrative State Cannot Be Controlled or Reformed.”
In each of the four preceding pieces, Ellul has progressively stripped away the most prominent of our political illusions. We no longer have real political choices. Ethical politics is not a thing. Modern mass politics requires propaganda. The nature of the techno-administrative state is that it cannot be controlled or reformed. So what are we to do in response to an amoral system that needs to infiltrate all parts of our lives, control our thoughts, is totalitarian is its scope and intention and cannot be meaningfully reformed through political action?
Before answering that question, Ellul has one or two further illusions he needs to expose. The idea that we can de-politicize our lives is not a solution. Neither is the solution to become hyper-political. Ellul argues that this idea that we can withdraw into our own private sphere and leave politics behind is not a noble choice. Rather, it is the path of cowardice or laziness or both. If you choose to withdraw from politics to tend your own garden you deserve the tyrannical oppression that will come when the state finds you. And it will find you. This idea of withdrawal must be condemned as much as the drive to make all things political. The Benedict Option is not an option. In fact, the very idea of a public sphere with politics and a private sphere without politics has contributed to the all consuming dominance of the state in our lives. This idea that there is a place in our society where we can and should withdraw from civic life, from the political life of the community, a space that is purely ours without the presence of the political, allows the state to function without a countervailing force to limit its power. If the state encounters no opposing force to check its power, it will grow until it consumes all things, including your precious non-political private space.
“It is absurd to think that one could nowadays really retire into one’s corner and defend oneself against the inroads of the all devouring state. The later does not change its nature; and, whatever your intentions, it will find you easily.”
There is no where you can go today where the state cannot find you. You cannot carve out your own space to live free from its influence. As much as you wish to flee politics, politics finds you. In truth, it is hunting you down. The choice to become apolitical is itself a political choice. The idea that you can become apolitical is as absurd an illusion as is the political itself.
So what are we to do? Ellul has answers, but they are hard answers and we will not like them.
“Experience has shown that the state will only retreat when it meets an insurmountable obstacle. This obstacle can only be man, i.e. citizens organized completely independent of the state. But, once organized, the citizen must possess an…attitude to depoliticize and repoliticize; this attitude can only be the result of his being freed from illusions. The crucial change involved focuses not on opinion and vocabulary but on behavior.”
There are two essential components here. First, there must be organized opposition to state power. Secondly, we must become the kind of people who have the capacity to resist the techno-administrative state and are capable of self-rule. There is no system or political platform that will set us free from the tyranny of the state. Returning to the pure system of the Founding Fathers will not accomplish this. Neither will a British style parliamentary system. Changing the way we vote and how we are represented will not do it. Checks and balances within the system will not do it. Having a dictator will not do it. Getting a new elite, “our people,” into power, will not do it. There is no system or program that will fix this. There is no system that we can put in place that will allow us to step away and go back to our lives, confident that all will be well with the government.
Becoming the kind of people who can govern themselves means that we must re-invent a situation in which life’s real problems are not posed in political terms. Problems such as poverty, even crime, drug abuse, mental illness, race relations, etc., that is, most of the problems we task government with solving, must no longer be posed in political terms. Only in the last 150 or so years have we attempted to try to fix moral and spiritual problems through the mechanisms of government, through the administrative state.
Recognizing that we cannot withdraw from the political into the private does not mean that the private should be eliminated. Rather, we need the private space all the more. We need clear lines drawn between the public and the private. There must be a tension between the two. They must be two well defined spaces in constant tension, constant conflict with each other. Ellul compares it to the father-son or teacher-student relationship. For the son to become a man or the student to strike out on their own, at some point he must test himself and his strength against his father, against his teacher. To gain independence there must be conflict. The father and the teacher must be overcome in battle. If we are unwilling to engage this struggle, we remain children. To become our own person, to govern ourselves, requires that we test ourselves against them, overcome them and break free. We must politicize the private sphere, making the private into a political force capable of resisting the public realm of the administrative state.
There is deep mystery here in regards to order and rules. On the one hand we need restraints, rules and an order imposed upon us. This order is a good thing, God given even. Without this order we have chaos and anarchy. Yet, at the same time, in order to learn self-restraint, self-discipline, true liberty, we must strain and struggle against this order. Without restraint there is no knowledge of liberty. Yet true freedom is not found in indulging our passions and desires without restraint, but rather in learning to master ourselves and our own passions. It is in this struggle that we discover what it means to be free.
“There is no liberty except liberty achieved in the face of some constraint or rule. There must be a precise and rigorous order if man, placed in conflict, is to conquer his liberty.”
Freedom is not something the state gives you. Freedom is not found in the morally autonomous person who makes their own rules according to their own whims and desires. Freedom at its highest and most beautiful is like poetry or music which emerges in the struggle with conventions and rules. It is the path of the craftsman and his tools. He embraces the rules of his discipline, he interiorizes them, and then in his mastery he pushes and struggles with these rules and conventions, breaking them when need be, in order to create something of sublime beauty. This is the path of freedom and self-governance.
The world of the technical undermines this. The technical has given us great power over the forces of nature and society, but this great victory has failed us in other areas. We no longer think of ourselves as spiritual beings. We no longer see the material world as nestled within a supernatural superstructure which gives the material order and meaning. Our world now is entirely material, limited to mere mater, that which can be measured and quantified. As a result, we try to solve all problems as if they are material, physical problems of space and time. Moral and spiritual problems are transmuted into scientific and technical problems. Because of this, we want to avoid conflict within the social body against people. Instead, we try to solve all problems materially. Our fight is against matter, not people. It is, in many ways, a passive-aggressive way of dealing with social problems. Rather than confront people and their flaws directly, engaging them, potentially creating conflict, we turn everything into a technical system which attempts to solve the problems without ever engaging the person. Through the technical and scientific, we attempt to eliminate the friend-enemy distinction, and thus end politics itself. The political is no more. There is just management of the material mechanisms of society.
But in order to face the real problems of society we must risk social tension. This risk always brings with it the possibility of open conflict within society. Politics and the political are inherently risky.
In the Middle Ages, this dynamic was manifest in the conflict between church and state. The two powers, by constantly checking the power and reach of the other, also found their own power being restrained and checked. As a Frenchman, Ellul notes that in the American system, the tension of federalism demanded that the states would be in constant conflict with the federal government, resisting its advances and curbing its power. For the American system to work as intended, the states must truly challenge the federal government and represent a constant and real threat to its influence and reach. In this regard, what Florida governor Ron DeSantis is doing is exactly what a state governor is supposed to be doing, except more, and more aggressively. Likewise, when states like California flout federal laws, they are functioning as the states should. But these examples are not enough. At this point in time, the federal government is not really challenged at all, in any way. The only political entities with enough power at this time to do that is the states. But how can you have a nation if the states ignore and challenge the federal government and federal law? That is a good question. It would be one that exists in constant tension and battle. But that conflict is the essence of the political. Ellul also notes that this centralizing influence has gone global. We need nations to challenge trans-national powers and we need states and provinces to challenge the federal or national governments.
It is exactly these conflicts and tensions that break through the political illusions that mask the reality of what is really happening. As Ellul notes in his book on violence (see my piece on his book addressing the question of violence specifically: “Abortion & Christian Realism: Jacques Ellul's Reflections on Violence” ) one of the functions which violence plays is a “prophetic” role that has the power to shatter the masks, illusions and falsehoods which our societies generate to avoid the truth of the current situation. In this regard, sometimes violence is necessary in order to break through the illusions of the current order such that true reform becomes possible. It is no different in regards to the techno-rational administrative state, maybe more so. We must face tension, even violence, in society or between powers within the system if we are to truly depoliticize our society.
At the same time, cautions Ellul, local autonomies may not be the solution, as they are often easily coopted by the larger powers, as we saw in the previous article. In a sense, what Ellul is arguing is that we must depoliticize in order to focus our political energies in new ways, to come to grips with the political in ways that are different from what we now experience. In this, Ellul allows himself to sketch out something of an idealist position. It is good, though, to know and understand the conditions under which the modern administrative state can be challenged and something new and different might emerge:
“We must try to create positions in which we reject the struggle with the state, not in order to modify some element of the regime or force it to make some decision [that is, we abandon the struggle to try to reform the state], but much more fundamentally to permit the emergence of…groups totally independent of the state, yet capable of opposing it, able to reject its pressures as well as its controls, and even its gifts. These organizations must be completely independent, not only materially, but also intellectually and morally, i.e. able to deny that the nation is the supreme value and the state as the incarnation of the nation…what is needed is groups capable of denying the state’s right—today accepted by everyone—to mobilize all forces and energies for a singular aim.”
When I read a paragraph like this, in my mind’s eye I picture a society, that is active, strident and even militant about its passion for self-governance. It is a society that is reluctant to release to the government the inherent powers possessed by all men to govern their own affairs. It is a society that does not deny government, but is willing to live and organize life separate from government in a way that they are able to successfully and continually challenge the power of the central government. A society on a constant war footing, so to speak, against its own government. The national challenging the international, the state challenging the federal, the municipal challenging the state. And alongside of this, you have groups of organized citizens whose goal is to check the power of government, to deny its right to impose itself on the lives of the citizenry. But the goal of the administrative state is to deny to its citizens the political in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. The goal of the citizenry must be to embrace the political with the goal of depoliticizing their lives. That means living constantly with the tensions of the political, the realization that violence and the threat of violence must always be with us if we desire to live without an all consuming administrative state.
“It would obviously be dangerous if groups of that kind were to emerge and would in a certain sense perhaps reduce the power of the nation, the growth of technology, the economic and military competition with other nations. But this is the condition for life itself. Tension presupposes risk, but it is a game that must be played; the stake ultimately is the authenticity of human life.”
Ideas like “the rule of law” and the management approach of the administrative state promise to us a peaceful well governed society where everyone follows the rules and everything is run by professionals and we can all go about our private business without having to worry about politics and the political. But this promise is an illusion. The end result is not a freedom from politics. Rather, we become consumed by the ever growing administrative state because we as citizens laid down our political responsibility to organize and check its power.
We must understand that engaging the political to challenge the administrative state is no guarantee that the citizenry can secure for themselves their own self-rule.
“I have never said that it is possible. I have only indicated the conditions for social and political life and the only way to escape the political illusion.”
Man and Self-Governance
Is self-governance possible? Under what conditions? We commonly use the term “democracy” for this, and Ellul does the same, but the term has been so polluted that the word “democracy” is most often used these days to describe a commitment to a society governed rationally by technocrats through the mechanism of the administrative state. Is it possible in this age of technology for us to once again govern ourselves?
“The great new facts, such as increasing technology, our propaganda and psychological techniques, and the systematization of all institutions attack man and democracy simultaneously.”
The point which Ellul makes is that the current system, the way things are now, do not just result in bad, authoritarian or totalitarian governments, they also attack our very humanity. The current state of things erodes our ability to be human, and thus political. We are less able to govern ourselves today because of technology and the technocratic administrative state. Rule by experts has rendered us less capable of ruling ourselves.
“All that is only a hypocritical cover-up to keep us from giving up the magic word [i.e. “democracy”] and admitting that the demands of technology and all the psychological seductions have eliminated the substance of democracy [that is, our ability to govern ourselves]”
Ultimately, the problem is personal. Are we the kind of people who are capable of governing our own lives without the need of the administrative state? It is not just a question of whether or not we are able to shoulder the burdens of our own lives, but are we also able to shoulder the burdens of civic life? Are we personally able to address the needs of our community? The problem of the growth of the administrative state and the politicization of everything is that it destroys this very aspect of man. Any hope we have in returning to self-rule can only take place as a result of the re-constitution of man.
How is man to escape the web of propaganda within which he lives? How can he learn to think his own thoughts? If he is able, will this now make him a dangerous anarchist? But how can a clumsy, badly adjusted, mediocre man ever hope to evolve spontaneously, becoming a self-governed man?
We must reject and abandon the idea that democracy, that is, self-governance, conforms to the natural condition of nature. True democracy is none other than man’s heroic struggle against hierarchy. When things take their natural course, the one, the few, will rule and oppress the many. Democracy can only be realized through the will of every citizen: man’s heroic struggle to master himself.
“It must be understood that democracy can no longer be anything except will, conquest, creation.”
Democracy, self-governance, is the opposite of the natural, the comfortable and is the opposite of our desire for peace and tranquility.
“But every citizen, not just some group of leaders or some organized marching or shouting mass, must want it. That already shows how little chance democracy has. But if each citizen does not want it, then the established regime will inevitably be of the aristocratic type, produced by technological progress in the authoritarian manner; and if the citizen is made to enter into democracy, it is only a pseudo-democracy, a game with juridical rules and formulas, not man’s expression.”
Ellul has described the current moment. We live in a pseudo-democracy ruled by a techno-aristocracy because we can’t muster the energy or desire or virtue to resist the state and govern ourselves. He argues that it will be man’s relationship with the technical and with the technology that will determine whether or not he can obtain self-rule and liberty free from the machinations of the techno-authoritarian state. Ellul was not optimistic.
As long as people are concerned with safety, security, and material well-being we should have no illusions. Such a person will never develop the virtues necessary for self-governance. Covid-19 has exposed our society’s desire to be kept safe and protected. What can we do when a significant portion of our society bids leave of each other with the salutation, “Stay safe!” When our political leaders tell us that, “It’s about the economy, stupid.” and we believe them, we know that we lack the virtue to govern ourselves. We need a conversion of our society away from the efficient and the effective, because both of those desires are the foundations for authoritarianism.
Ellul argues that we need to get down to the level of myth, to change our aspirations at their very core. Progress. Science. History. Work. Youth. Growth. Efficiency. All of these mythical ideas that lay at the foundation of our society must be rejected in favor of a new set of aspirations set around the goal of human flourishing.
Ellul’s is a demanding and lofty vision. I will admit that when I first read the book I dismissed his conclusions as a starry eyed pining. But as I reflected on my notes, I realized that his vision is grounded and realistic without much real world optimism in regards to its feasibility. I find that his vision is growing on me. I have come to the conclusion myself that the current situation is not going to change unless the administrative state is threatened by an entity, a group, or an organization, that can effectively challenge its power, with violence if necessary. Reform is not possible. Ellul sees that need himself. He also recognizes that the ability to govern our own affairs is something that must be cultivated personally, locally, in communities and jealously guarded. It is a thing of spirit, virtue and character development. We must master technology through the exercise of our own virtue. It is worthwhile having this vision even if the most likely outcome of today’s political situation is the emergence of an authoritarian or totalitarian dictator. The broad brush of Ellul’s thinking mirrors my own disposition towards small scale life and a politics that is based on the principle of subsidiarity. The drive towards the always larger scale—economies of scale—so as to achieve greater efficiency and better margins and harness more power is something we all should resist, by conflict if necessary. This is the reality to which Schmitt drew our attention, that we must accept the ever present possibility of violence and conflict if we desire an authentic and meaningful politics.