February 9, 2009

A review of Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes, by Jacques Ellul.

Last summer I read this dense and engaging book that speaks about propaganda, I came to know of it while reading the Global Village of Marshall McLuhan: I found an interesting citation of this book, it said that Christianism is interested in alphabetizing a population before transmitting the word of God, because it is more easy to convince someone who is alphabetized than someone completely “ignorant”.

I was struck by these words, because they are so true! The condition where man is the most vulnerable is that of half-knowledge:  he knows something and thinks he knows a lot. The perfect situation where he can be cheated.

I think that everybody who looks carefully the messages coming from mass media should be puzzled by their contradictions. Moreover I often doubt that my own ideas are really “mine” and not the fruits of a marketing empty of content or the convinction that our parents were learned when they were young.

This book made me think about the myths of our society, our reasons of living: money, being happy, do your “duty”, succeed at work, “produce”.

In this society of information we are in the hands of who have money and has interest in controlling us. It is not a matter of an “organization”, rather it is the smart guy of the moment.  If before I was thinking about not trusting the media at all, after reading this book I tryto be skeptical about my own thinking.

Behind Ellul’s ideas there is the man. Man is vulnerable, self-contradictory, always struggling fro something. This man is the perfect victim for those who promulgate idea of any kind. Indeed Ellul speaks about big systems propaganda: democracy, comunism, fascism, etc. because he says that they can be all-pervasive, but it is also interesting in that he propose that man want to be propagandize, desire a god of any kind and give his own life to it. More of the times it is simply the money.

I prepared some tips and tricks useful for seeing our own propaganda and a glued set of extracts from the book to give a rough idea of its style and the content.

PROPAGANDA – tips and tricks

Slogans determine with considerable precisione each type of group toward which an individual is oriented, wheter or not he is a member. […] The individual clings to it only because the slogan is easy to understand and to retain, but also because it permits him to “find himself in it”

PROPAGANDA – an incomplete and glued extract from different parts of the book

Propaganda must be total. The propagandist must utilize all of the technical means at his disposal – the press, radio, TV, movies, posters, meetings, door to door canvassing. There is no propaganda as long as one makes use, in sporadic fashion and at random, of a newspaper article here, a poster or radio program there, writes few slogans on walls. Each usable medium has its own particular way of penetration. The propagandist must combine the elements of propaganda as in a real orchestration.

We now come to an absolutely decisive fact. Propaganda is very frequently described as a manipulation for the purpose of changing ideas or opininos, of making individuals “believe” some idea or fact, and finally of making them adhere to some doctrine. This line of reasoning is completely wrong. The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action, It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling irrationaly to a process of action. It is no longer to transform an opinion, but to arouse an active and mythical belief.

For propaganda to succeed, a society must first have two complementary qualities: it must be both an individualist and a mass society. These two qualities are often considered contradictory. In actual fact an individualist society must be a mass society, because the first move toward liberation of the individual is to break up the small groups that are an organic fact of the entire society. In this process the individual frees himself completely from family, village, parish, or brotherhood bonds- only to find himself vis-a-vis with the entire society. When individuals are not held together by local structures, the only form in which they can live together is in an unstructured mass society. Similarly, a mass society can only be based on individuals- that is, on men in their isolation, whose identities are determined by their relationships with one another. Precisely because the individuals claims to be equal to all other individuals, he becomes an abstraction and is in effect reduced to a cipher.

Besides, modern man is called upon for enormous sacrifices, which probably exceeds anything known in the past. First of all, work has assumed an all-pervading role in modern life. Never have men worked so much as in our society. Then there is the difficulty of accepting the never changing daily-routine, the lack of personal accomplishment, the absence of an apparent meaning of life, the family insecurity provoked by these living conditions. One cannot leave modern man alone in a situation such as this. What can one do? One can have him live in a myth strong enough to offset the concrete disadvantages, or give them a shade of meaning, a value that makes them acceptable. This is the function of Soviet and Chinese propaganda.

I have tried to show elsewhere that propaganda has also become a necessity for the internal life of democracy. Nowadays the state is forced to define an official truth. What am I saying then? That propaganda can promulgate a democratic doctrine? Absolutely.  That it can be used by a government elected with majority vote? Absolutely. In that case the word democracy, having become a simple incitation, no longer has anything to do with democratic behavior. And the citizen can repeat indefinitely “the sacred formulas of democracy” while acting like a storm trooper.