The Necessary and the Ephemeral: "The Political Illusion" by Jacques Ellul
This piece begins a series looking into Jacques Ellul's little discussed work on politics, applying his insights on technology and propaganda to realm of the political.
Many are familiar with Jacques Ellul. Even if they have not read him themselves, they know he penned important works on technology and the technological nature of our society. He also wrote one of the standard works on the subject of propaganda. In this time when many are unearthing old political theorists looking for new insights, it is surprising that Ellul’s work on political theory has not received more attention. Hopefully this series of articles can rectify that somewhat. His book, The Political Illusion, brings together many of his insights about technology and propaganda, applying them to the realm of the political. Although never stated directly, the main illusion under discussion is that of “democracy.” The west remains very attached to this idea that we live in political systems that gain their legitimacy through popular sovereignty. We believe in the reality of parliamentary democracy. We believe that the will of the people matters and this will is expressed through the electoral system. Ellul argues that this, and much more, are all illusions.
Our leaders are under the illusion that they are in charge, that they make real political decisions which have an impact upon the future of the nations. The people believe that politicians and the political parties they represent matter to the nation as it goes forward. Everyone seems to believe that the future of the country is an actual matter of political discussion at all. These things and much more are all illusions, says Ellul.
“People in our time…invest political affairs with their passions and hopes, but live in a particularly distressing political trance.”
One of Ellul’s main goals in writing this work is not so much to give us solutions, per se, but to open our eyes to the state of the way things are so that we are not seduced by the popular images of what politics is all about.
Reading Ellul, especially his more academic, sociological works—of which this is one—is typically an exercise in ingesting a steady diet of black pills about the way the world works. He does not shy away from the harsh realities of the way things are. He opens by making this observation about democracy:
“The sovereignty of the people is an etiological myth without possible realization.”
It just can’t be done. You cannot have rule by the masses. It is a great idea in theory that simply cannot be realized in the real world. All this voting nonsense is simply an exercise in fooling ourselves.
“The popular vote is not an effective process for controlling or passing judgement on the regime, or an effective means of arbitration in the struggle between opposed political and social forces, nor a process suited to elect the ablest leaders.”
The first step in shaking off the illusion is to simply reject the very idea of democracy itself, especially at the level of the nation state. All throughout the work, though, there is still, even for Ellul, a romantic tie to the idea of popular sovereignty which is hard to let go.
“It therefore seem to me that if we have any chance to rediscover some value in collective life, we must reject past and present myths and attain full consciousness of the political reality as it exists.”
The hope is there. Perhaps it is possible. But only if we first see clearly. In this regard, Ellul does help us see clearly. As to the recovery of “collective life,” it remains to be seen if he can succeed in helping us with that.
Politicization is the Death of Politics
Ellul is saying nothing new, of course. Anyone paying attention knows that “democracy” is a sham. It was a sham in the 1970’s when he wrote this book. Its a farce today in the 2020’s. It is one thing to recognize this. It is another all together to document it in fine grained detail. The first of these arguments is in the category of “you protest too much.”
“We talk endlessly of politics in an unconscious effort to hide the void of our actual reality.”
A comparison is made to culture. You know that a culture has passed from a living thing to dead artifact once people start talking about cultural production. Once people notice that their culture is dying and start talking about this reality as a grave crisis, you know that the culture is already dead. Culture wars are similar. You do not talk about a culture war unless the underlying generators of culture are already dead or dying. In a living culture, this thing known as “culture” is just produced and enjoyed. They simply do culture. No one talks about it as “culture.” Once you have abstracted yourself from the production of culture within your own culture to talk about cultural production, you are hastening the demise of the actual thing. You are contributing to its death by noticing that it is dying. If you have it, why the need to talk about it?
A similar dynamic is at work with politics and political concepts.
“If one lives in peace and freedom, why make them the subject of speeches? Their very existence and the pleasure of enjoying them should be enough.”
The more that you need to talk about democracy, liberty, rights and so forth, argues Ellul, the more this is an indication that these elements are growing increasingly elusive in your society.
“A regime that talks most of some value is a regime that consciously or unconsciously denies that value and prevents it from exiting.”
What Ellul is saying here is something that many of us observe.
In fact, the growing politicization of our society, politics infecting everything, the increase in ideological debates, the tendency to see all problems as having a political solution is in fact a sign, not of a healthy politics, but rather, of a society without a meaningful living politics. The fact that everything has become political is actually a sign that true politics is dead.
The fact that the state is asserting itself into more and more areas of our lives, that the government is involved in almost every facet of our lives is a sign that the bureaucracy is no longer simply an instrument of politics. The state is no longer a superstructure that is there to be filled with the political will of the people. The state in its entirety can no longer even be directed by the politicians or the parties themselves. The bureaucracy has become an entity of its own, a power in its own right. The most telling sign of the political power of the bureaucracy is that it has now produced its own class with its own class interests. The “manager.” The “expert.” They are not the instruments of others. They have become their own power with their own interests and aims.
Ellul argues that this new politicized reality where the individual’s life is seized by the power of the state as expressed in the bureaucracy is far worse, far more serious and far more decisive than economic alienation. Political slavery has been substituted for economic slavery. As authors like James Burnham have also noted, no longer is the true power held by the bourgeoisie, rather it is held by the professionals who staff the administrative state.
This transformation occurred in part through democracy itself. This idea that the masses would participate in politics or the state is relatively new. It used to be that a revolution was merely a palace coup that left the general population untouched. But once democracy invited the participation of everyone, it also brought about the converse: the state now needs to involve itself in the lives of everyone. Because of the necessity to win votes, politicians need to give the perception that they are addressing the felt needs of the voters. This means implementing policies and establishing bureaucracies to manage those policies. Once involved, though, the presence of the state remains. Gradually swallowing up and politicizing an ever greater part of people’s lives, but also involving the whole of society. Everything is thus political.
This dynamic generates the myth of politicization. Not only do we think that the state must solve all problems, but that the state is both qualified and able to address every problem in every area of life. We are now in a position where:
“We cannot conceive of society except as directed by a central omnipresent and omnipotent state.”
This is the implication of the idea that the government must address every issue our society faces and that it is capable of addressing them. We act as if the state is all powerful, omnipotent. This utopian view of government has become deeply ingrained in our consciousness. It is hard now to imagine any other group or institution other than the state being able to address problems. For the world to be properly ordered, the state must have all the power. All questions are political and those that currently are not, must become politicized.
In the old days, the idea of a state religion was a reality and perhaps even a threat to the state. But there was not in those days a religion of the state, that is a worship of the state itself. When the state becomes the omnipotent force in society, able to solve all problems, this effectively divinizes the state.
All moral values in this situation become politicized. Even ideas like liberty, freedom, justice only find their meaning in regards to the state. The only freedoms that matter are those which are secured, granted and enforced by the state. For example, women can only realize their worth when they receive political rights. Any talk of the value of motherhood is simply reactionary.
“A person without the right (in reality magical) to place a paper ballot in a box is nothing, not even a person.”
In this regard all “progress” can only be realized through the state. Ellul sums up the essence of this relationship with the state:
“Progress is to receive this power, this mythical share in a theoretical sovereignty that consists in surrendering one’s decisions for the benefit of someone else who will make them in one’s place.”
This is the catch-22 of the state. The more that we wish to be involved in the life of the state through democratic institutions, the more that we wish the state to respond to our wishes and demands as voters, the more that we hand power over to the state to address these same problems. Eventually, the state has its fingers in every aspect of our life because we demanded sovereignty. The end point of parliamentary democracy is the omnipotent authoritarian state.
If we turn back the clock several hundred years, what did people want from this new style of government, that is, parliamentary democracy? They wanted effective control over the police. They did not want to pay taxes except those which were agreed to, like a voluntary contribution. They did not want to go to war, except when they the people would want to go to war. They wanted to be able to express their ideas freely in public. They wanted each person to be able to affect public opinion. This sentiment about the nature of what parliamentary democracy should be has remained.
“The masses, who do not actually participate in political affairs, firmly believe that they do; and in addition, make their illusory participation their principle criterion of dignity, personality and liberty.”
The true heretic of our day is the person who has no interest in politics. The energy which we put into politics reinforces the political and never weakens it. In fact, for many, for most, the consoling presence of their lives that used to be occupied by religious desires is now found in politics. We have a faith that politics can solve the problems of human life. What the churches have lost has been found by the political institutions.
The Necessary and the Ephemeral
Ellul argues that for politics to be real, it must have two characteristics:
To have a true political process, it is necessary that there be a real effective choice between multiple solutions. It is not necessary that that options be good proposals, but they must be real choices. These choices must encompass both the ends and the means. Both the goals and the way in which those goals are implemented must be real choices. The decision between these options must be authentic.
To render a political decision, the actual perception of time is necessary. Real political decisions involve establishing a goal, an end, that can be realized at some point in the future. It also must involve determining the best means to achieve that future goal. For politics to exist there must be effective control over this process. A political decision is the exercise of the will directed towards controlling the future. Politics arises out of a desire to conform the future to one’s wishes.
Ellul argues that both aspects of politics are disappearing in today’s society. We no longer have real politics, but the appearance of politics, the illusion of politics. Politics today can now only react in the domain of current affairs. Today’s political situation is played out in a perpetual present.
What Ellul wants us to see is that most political decisions today are in fact pseudo-decisions. Our politics today is supposed to happen in a value free context, where people leave their religious and moral beliefs behind in the realm of the private. We are supposed to deal only with facts and reason. But this does considerably narrow the range of one’s options. We want Machiavellians who do not cloud their decisions with moral or spiritual values, acting only out of political necessity. We have been convinced that moral and religious values have no place in politics, that they are antiquated, part and parcel of an older way of thinking which we have now transcended. Liberation from values, though, does mean that we must submit ourselves to a much narrow range of options. We are bound by the “necessity” of the political.
“The individual is always ready to submit to necessity, as long as freedom’s vocabulary is preserved, so that he can equate his servile obedience with the glorious exercise of free, personal choice.”
This push towards a value free politics trends us towards the elimination of real political choices. Without morality or religion to cloud our judgement or complicate our decisions, we can embrace the fake political choices that necessity thrusts upon us while maintaining the fiction that we are free. Any time you hear a politician tell you that something must be done or that it is necessary that this policy be enacted they are engaging in this slight of hand. The decision has already been made. The ends have been chosen. They will then tell us that we must decide on the means, but these have also already been chosen for us as well.
Much of this necessity is driven by scale. The larger that any organization becomes, including the government, the state, the fewer its options become.
“Every time an organization increases in dimension and complexity, the rate of necessity increases and the possibility of choice and adaptation decline.”
What Ellul is getting at here is that the degree to which a state embraces the technical as both the ends and the means, the greater that all future ends and means will become technical in nature. Non-technical options become excluded. Once the state implements a bureaucratic solution, all problems soon become bureaucratic. In some sense, the ends and the means collapse together in the bureaucracy. The point of government is the bureaucracy. All ends, all goals, are technical and all means to achieve those goals are, of course, technical. There are no other options. If there are no other options, there are no political choices.
You think, we could shut down the bureaucracy. We have a choice. But that is illusory. The integration of nations into power blocs and the presence of enemies limits your options. Once you embrace the idea of the power and the efficiency of the technical as a society, once you go down the path of the technological, all political decisions are decisions of technical power and efficiency.
“The law of politics is efficiency. Its not the best man who wins, but the most powerful, the cleverest, and all these terms can be reduced to one: effectiveness.”
What this means in practice is that if your enemy adopts industrialization, the technical and the power of technical administration, you must do so as well. The option to remain as a non-industrial society is not open to you if you wish to continue as country. If your neighbor has tanks and guns rolling off the assembly line and you do not, you will soon be overrun by those same tanks.
That means not just that you must build tanks, but you must embrace all of the managerial architecture, the industrial and economic policies necessary to make that happen along with all the accompanying administrative structures. This is why most countries have some form of socialist safety net. It is why almost every country’s Covid-19 policy looked somewhat similar to their neighbors. The drive of the technical is to standardize everything and harmonize everything into a single technical apparatus. The more technically integrated countries are in terms of industry and supply chain, the more that all policy will begin to look the same. This is also why every nation seems to be supporting Ukraine against Russia.
In this sense, argues Ellul, Hitler won. In order to respond to German aggression in World War 2, its enemies had to adopt the same industries policies, similar methods of social and military organization and similar tactics. What Hitler began with research into atomic weapons was finished off and used by the Americans. Necessity narrowed and dictated choice. You must become your enemy to survive.
The choices available to politicians today with regards to political problems depends upon the technicians and experts who have prepared for them the various options they could take. These are, of course, the same technicians and experts who will be tasked with implementing the very policies that were recommended to the politicians. All decisions that fundamentally affect the future of the nation are now in the domain of the technical. All ends and means are generated by technical experts and implemented by technical experts. Everything that can be done is done on the advice of the expert technicians. This subordinates the political to technical exigencies. Truly political decisions made exclusively for political ends are increasingly rare. Writing in the beginning of the 1970’s, Ellul made the observation that essentially the USSR and the USA had become the same and were on similar trajectories.
This technical imperative means that most political parties will carry on with most of the policies of their predecessors, mainly for technical reasons. Again, the same professional bureaucrats who were recommending policies and plans to the previous government will be recommending them to the new government. This dynamic is at play regardless of the ideological leanings of the administrative experts who staff these agencies.
This idea that politicians choose the goals of the administration and the bureaucracy exists to turn those political goals into reality is an illusion. Both ends and means are technical. Because of the supposed moral and religious neutrality of the state there are no real ideological debates. All debates are within the realm of the technical. It really does not matter what ideology one has, because it is of no import and inconsequential. All issues and problems are technical in nature. The idea of the decision made for purely political reasons is an illusion.
I wonder if this is why cultural issues have become such a hot button. Because morality and religion have been set aside in favor of the technical, those who clamor for real political decisions have only one area in which to press those decisions: the moral and the religious. This is also why the so-called conservative Republican Party (and most mainstream conservative parties in the west, for that matter) is so resistant to culture war issues, why there is constant talk of needing to “get them off the table,” is that they wish to return to the safe realm of the necessary and the technical. They want policies recommended by experts in think tanks that can reasonably be implemented through the administrative state apparatus. In this sense, the Republican Party is actually allergic to the political. For this is what culture war issues are: real politics. Real decisions about issues voters actually care about. Real politics upsets the calm world of bureaucratic and technical necessity.
Ellul understood this:
“We must realize ever more clearly that the development of technology progressively eliminates the proletariat itself, both in its condition, so that the proletariat changes its nature and can no longer play the roll assigned to it by the philosophers of history.”
Technical management wants to do away with the wishes and the desires of the people who simply exist to be managed by the ever growing technical imperative of the experts and the bureaucrats. The people, on the other hand, demand a say. The area in which they sense they have the most ability to dictate the terms to the administrative state are in the areas of morals and religion, the culture war.
Ellul argues that all political decisions today are also ephemeral. In fact our whole western civilization is ephemeral. We have a throw away culture. Even the arts and culture are now all mere moving pictures, shadows and light. Nothing is built to last. We are not committed to anything. Instead of rooting ourselves in the forms, in the timeless, we now adapt ourselves to the circumstances. We submit ourselves to events. We are assailed by what is new, that is, the news.
We keep ourselves continually tuned into current events. This is a function of the rise of mass media beginning with the newspaper. There is a kind of prestige associated with always being up on “the current thing.” Being informed on the latest happenings renders you superior to those who do not know what is going on.
The news, though, produces a fundamental political incapacity in the individual, whether citizen, politician or bureaucrat. The constant stream of news tends to disperse us a people, in that our sense of self is no longer self-contained. Who we are is constantly adrift in a sea of ever changing information. There is also a growing discontinuity. We lack the time to really reflect on the ever changing stream of events. News, by its very definition is “new.” With the news, the past and the future tend to fall away and we are caught up in an ever changing present. There is no ability to understand. We just react. We live in a constant state of agitation and excitement.
Even a trained person is increasingly incapable of grasping political or economic realities in the midst of an every changing and seemingly contradictory present. We must try to fit things into a conceptual framework if we are going to be able to interpret them at all. But the constant onslaught of the news cycle gives scarce time for reflection. As we immerse ourselves in the news cycle, this also prevents us looking deeply into things that are not related to the news cycle. As we focus on the ephemeral problems created by the news cycle, all political problems become a form of spectacle, another form of entertainment.
A man who lives in the news is a man without memory. But without a strong sense of self, anyone immersed in the news with no sense of the past, no foresight into the future has no reference to the truth. The truth remains inaccessible to him. This is not a free man. To live in the moment this way seems like freedom, but is in fact a negation of liberty. To make true political decisions one must have continuity between past and future.
“A man who reads the newspaper every day is certainly not a politically free person”
This has profound implications for the role of the 24 hour news cycle, social media, especially platforms like Twitter with its constantly updated stream of information. The person immersed in this flow gives up his freedom in order to remain constantly informed. One cannot devote three to six months for proper reflection on the events of the day. Everyone will be screaming for politicians to act now. Everything must be done immediately. All problems must be solved today, within the confines of this news cycle. This drives the constant clamoring for the government to “do something.” It seems inconceivable that we would do nothing about some crisis.
The means that we are more inclined to grasp for ready made solutions provided by experts who are able to solve problems through technical means, by means of the administrative state. There is usually experts who are planning for different eventualities. When these eventualities arise, they are ready to implement their technical solutions through technical means. The more that this happens, the more that people become disinterested in solutions that are not technical. They want solutions and they want them now. Purely political decisions that were available to politicians even 150 years ago are no longer available to us today. Nor are they available anymore even to the technicians.
The political wanes in the face of the technological. This is why a thinker like Carl Schmitt called the technical drive of the administrative state a denial of politics itself. If all problems are technical and all solutions involve the administrative state, then there is no politics. It is an illusion.
The necessary and the ephemeral combine to make politics illusory.
Next piece: The autonomy of the political realm and the illusion of the possibility of a Christian or moral politics.
Another excellent article. I wish there was Internet shorthand for saying "this is a friendly comment from someone who shares your views".
I'd like to explore a theme that I've seen several times in your articles. I think it has very significant implications if followed to its logical conclusion. That theme is war.
"The option to remain as a non-industrial society is not open to you if you wish to continue as country." Or, put in blunt terms, a society must become technical to win wars. We can generalize this in a way that is historically obvious, societies structure themselves to win wars. Those that don't or don't do it well, don't survive. Culture, therefore, serves a martial purpose. As does, I would argue, religion. A religion that doesn't help you win wars is unlikely to survive.
It may seem odd to put war at the center of society, especially to contemporary ears, nevertheless even a cursory glance at history shows that this view is well-supported. I would hasten to add that acknowledging the primacy of war is merely recognizing a fact, not glorifying war--something I do not do.
If one accepts this view then it follows that ways of waging war are the most important topic in politics and social theory. We must pay attention to changes in the nature of war. So, is it still true that a society must be technical to win wars? It is not as clear cut in 2022 as it was in 1941. The US war in Afghanistan is just one example of many.
Wars are not, contrary to popular opinion, purely technical affairs where you simply compare weapon stats to see who will win (how emblematic of technical society that so many people think this way!). They have a moral dimension. "In war, moral power is to physical as three parts out of four.", as Napoleon said. Technical society undercuts the moral dimension, as we see so evidently today, therefore despite superiority in materiel it is less likely to win. Technical society contains the seeds of its own destruction.
I am aware of the complexity of this topic but I'll leave it with just the above points. If I write much more I will feel guilty for not having my own Substack.