“Propaganda does not aim to elevate man, but to make him serve.”
— Jacques Ellul
I first encountered the ideas of Jacques Ellul in the 1970’s through an article in a scholarly Christian mag. A French philosopher, law professor, and lay theologian, his ideas resonated with me and I began reading many of his books beginning with The Technological Society, False Presence of the Kingdom, The Meaning of the City, Hope in Time of Abandonment and many others.
What especially appealed to me was that he packaged his ideas in order to communicate with the audience he was talking with. That is, he would write about a topic “as a Christian” to Christians, and as a scholar to scholars. The former would be infused with Biblical references and Biblical scholarship, the latter with rational discussions and secular arguments. This book, Propaganda, is a searing and insightful example of the latter.
His books addressed the issues of modern life, and our relationship to the State, to the powers, was one of his recurring themes. Which is why it became important for him to write a book about propaganda, a central feature of contemporary life.
“The aim of modern propaganda,” Ellul wrote, “is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action.” Thus was born the Committee on Public Information (CPI) during WWI, whose aim was to influence U.S. public opinion to support the war effort. Wilson’s Executive Order 2594 set in motion an ever broadening series of events.
When Ellul in 1962 wrote, “The propagandist must utilize all of the technical means at his disposal — the press, radio, TV, movies, posters, meetings, door-to-door canvassing,” he was actually simply describing what Woodrow Wilson did years earlier when he assigned George Creel to create and head up the CPI.
Of the CPI, Wikipedia states, “in just over 26 months, from April 14, 1917, to June 30, 1919, it used every medium available to create enthusiasm for the war effort and to enlist public support against the foreign and perceived domestic attempts to stop America’s participation in the war.” This was the first intentional use of the U.S. government to covertly manipulate the minds of our own people.
One of the reasons for the emergence of modern propaganda has been the pervasive presence of mass media.
For Ellul, “the study of propaganda must be conducted within the context of a technological society. Propaganda is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments, and to integrate the individual into a technological world.” In other words, it isn’t just about obtaining support for our war efforts, but also to make the masses malleable, molding minds, wants and needs so they accept the way things are, even if it is strangling their souls.
In another place Ellul writes, “Hate, hunger, and pride make better levers of propaganda than do love or impartiality.” Hence we see the importance of Hate Week in Orwell’s 1984.
For Ellul, propaganda is described as a greater threat to mankind than nuclear weapons or any other danger we face. And like Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, the book is chock full of little gems of insight to mull over and raise questions in our minds.
Ellul writes, “Propaganda by its very nature is an enterprise for perverting the significance of events and of insinuating false intentions.” As any unbiased observer of modern media will readily attest.
As for intentions, what is really going on in the world today? Who is behind the curtain manipulating those dials and levers? And to what end?
Or to quote Marvin Gaye, “What’s Goin’ On?”
With the advent of social media, Ellul’s book is more relevant than ever.