The Political Illusion pt. 3: Propaganda and the Political
Everyone understands that we live immersed in propaganda. So what is it and how does it work? This piece gives a basic introduction to this important 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 distant. It is no longer the game of princes. It requires the constant consent of the people. In this respect, 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 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.
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