In his influential and highly regarded exploration of propaganda in modern society, Jacques Ellul wrote: "Propaganda is the true remedy for loneliness."1
It seems an odd statement, for we do not usually think that propaganda is a remedy for much of anything. Instead, propaganda is said to be composed of outright lies, half-truths and misrepresentations. It is are used to mislead unwitting souls into ideologies that are false on their face, and it is apt to lead to attitudes and actions that are reprehensible by any commonly accepted standard of morality. Propaganda uses deception and distortion to gull its victims into the clutches of some manipulative and usually downright evil cabal. Propaganda, after all, is what the Nazis used to organize mass slaughter based on hideously wicked notions of racial superiority. Propaganda is what George Orwell warned us against in his dying, dystopian novel, 1984.
Even those of us who recall the proper etymology of the term are suspicious. It derives, we might remember, from the verb "to propagate," which can have wholly benign meanings, especially for biologists and amateur gardeners seeking to breed new species of roses or tomatoes. It even has a legitimate use (at least to believers) when it identifies the Roman Catholic Church’s congregatio de propaganda fide—the religious body established to spread the faith. Yet, it seems forever sullied in common usage. So, the notion that propaganda is a cure for the personal desolation of isolation or, indeed, that it is therapeutic for people ignored by or alienated from family and community seems counterintuitive and more than a little perplexing.
Yet, Ellul’s assessment is perceptive. If we think of propaganda only as the sort of high-powered advertising technique commonly used in the interest of disreputable ends, then we are not thinking seriously enough about it. We are not comprehending the fact that propaganda is more than a method for spreading this or that falsehood. Propaganda can be far more insidious and pervasive. It can describe entire sets of social relations and cultural communications. It can refer to the contextualization of existential problems affecting whole populations in an ungrounded, disconnected, fragmented and fractious society. It can be far more than the promotion of reprehensible attitudes and actions in an otherwise normal historical context. It can define that context itself. By these lights, propaganda is more than a problem within society; it can depict and explain society itself. That, at least, is the contention of Gerald Sussman and his collaborators in The Propaganda Society.
Jacques Ellul also linked propaganda to technology. Drawing on his insights and some of the less odious ideas of Martin Heidegger, George Grant went on to spell out an assessment of modernity in which the pursuit of "truth" became more than an academic exercise in Platonic speculation. His analysis of the relationship between technology and modernity also became an essential element in the understanding of what we call "good citizenship."2 For Grant, living on the periphery of a vast technological empire, it is technology that stands as a victor, while good citizenship lies battered and bloodied as a tragic victim.
Gerald Sussman goes Ellul and Grant one better. He has assembled a remarkable collection of essays that explore what Noam Chomsky referred to as the application of enormous resources not only to create a marketplace of "uninformed consumers, who make irrational choices," but also an "electorate, which is uninformed and makes irrational choices under modern democracy."3 Propaganda is no longer a method to encourage some particular idea or ideology; it is now the normative structure of communications itself.
Propaganda in contemporary society is not about selling some piece of received wisdom or rallying people to displace an antique ethical doctrine. It is not about mustering support for political parties and movements, whether on the left-wing or the right-wing of the ever-elusive political spectrum. Indeed, the most successful ideological movement of the recent past may be the one that championed the politics of technocracy, which is to say the politics of the "dead" centre. It has convinced people of the futility of dissent and the advisability of supine acquiescence in what merely is. Only anarchists, romantics and fools take to the streets, after all, when their every movement and consumer purchase is data-banked by the authorities. For 99% of the top 99%, they are merely "infotainment."
Propaganda is not merely about persuading people to adopt particular "lifestyles" and make the fashionable purchases that accompany and sustain them. It is involved in both, of course, but it is more. It creates the consumer culture in which people are led to establish their personal identities, their domestic and their social relationships according to the dictates of an all-inclusive and largely electronic array of anonymous technical devices. For political life, Chomsky adds, this means encouraging passivity and obedience not by demands or threats, but by the removal of any consideration of alternative possibilities.
The result has also been described by Sheldon Wolin as "managed democracy," a system of free choice among options that display no meaningful differences.4 It makes political competition akin to consumer competition among breakfast cereals and personal hygiene products. Pushed further, it reduces politics to the level of a television reality show─albeit one that is immensely better financed by the recipients of the largesse of the Supreme Court of the United States, which recently gave to corporations many of the "rights," but few of the "responsibilities" of citizenship.
Propaganda is currently used to achieve a level of social conformity on a broader scale than previously imagined. It creates a global propaganda society in which people are drawn to compliance and submission with a dominant ideology as remedy for socio-cultural dislocation and isolation. It represents a "flight from anxiety." It does not compel the undertaking of political projects; it removes the burden of public responsibility and relieves the stress of disconnectedness where loneliness becomes an unacceptable alternative to submission. In exchange for a meaningful public sphere, we acquire a phony culture of Facebook "friends." People familiar with this line of argument will recall Erich Fromm’s testament, Escape from Freedom.5 As a refugee from Nazi Germany, Fromm’s concern was the affront to liberal democracy from outside more than the corrosion of liberal democracy from the inside.
This should all be familiar. It is an extension of the argument that has been raised against "mass society" since at least the end of World War II. It says that propaganda is more than advocacy, rhetoric and deformation of "facts"; it is context as much as content. We have become a society of "networks" rather than communities. We "interact" and "interface" even with friends and families. We are so preoccupied with "branding" that we seek to market our very selves. We are inundated with a constant buzz from "information technology" that transmits: personal messages; "tweets" from celebrities; the latest (and already almost forgotten) films; online editions of scholarly journals, mainstream magazines, daily newspapers and "alternative" news sources; streaming video from television stations; a world of music (sometimes illicitly downloaded); incessant and pervasive advertising in all its forms; and, of course, access to secret government documents via Wikileaks. People stand at bus stops, sit in restaurants, walk down college corridors and drive their automobiles while talking or texting—focusing on the "virtual" people in cyberspace while virtually ignoring the real people next to them. Propaganda is technology. The medium is, more powerfully than ever, the message.
To pursue these themes, Gerald Sussman has brought together an erudite and well-informed collection of twenty-two writers with who spell out the core of our propaganda problem. "Propaganda," Sussman says clearly, "is communication organized in the service of powerful interests and those groups aspiring to power; it is not intrinsically dishonest despite its unsavoury reputation and associations. A mobilization of propaganda dedicated to the pursuit of democratic ideals of equity and social justice and a richly deliberative and participatory society would be part of a struggle for popular liberation and the creation of a kind of politics in the broad public interest."
Good luck with that!
Technophiles have been hammering away for decades about the democratic impulses of the media (and, most recently, the "social" media) as mechanisms for the mobilization of protest and dissent. Much has been made of the role of Facebook in the so-called "Arab Spring" and related popular movements against tyranny. Enthusiasts have also raised the possibility of information-technology-led invigorations of established liberal democracies. They say that a massive inundation of public opinion surveys and the dissemination of their results might stand for sensible political discourse, without so much as a nod at who might be empowered to write the pertinent questions. Much has also been made about the possibility of instant plebiscites, electronic voting and technologically enhanced public information systems. So far, however, there is remarkably little evidence that disembodied communications will do much to enliven and enhance the "body politic." It hasn’t worked in education. It isn’t likely to work in political life, except perhaps as a simulacrum or a parody of what is left of the real thing.
Still, the urge toward optimism is hard to resist. Sussman continues: "It is up to educators and public intellectuals," he insists, "to break through the political miasma by critically exposing students to the venality of the neoliberal state and the emerging collapse of democracy and possible onset of neofascism … It is up to the present younger generations, who understand how to use information and communication technology and the media, to develop a deeper understanding of why and in whose interest they are and can be used."
This is quite a challenge to old and young alike. And Sussman’s anthology is plainly intended to help kick-start the process of "spreading the word" in order to confront and overcome those whose use of propaganda supports politicians as well as the plutocrats and the plunderbund for whom elected officials perform their services as what can certainly appear to be the "executive committee of the ruling class."
Sussman has chosen his contributors from English-speaking, economically advanced societies with the full range of mass media available (and unavoidable) to the public. They hail from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Their efforts are mainly directed toward both specific case studies and the explication of the larger meanings of their topics in relation to technology and propaganda.
I am not generally well-disposed to the study of the unique. When dealing with individuals, biographies may impart intriguing information and narratives about (usually) very important people or they may simply yield malicious gossip. When dealing with groups, case studies are the preferred method. They arise with regard to small societies or sub-cultures within larger ones and are employed by anthropologists to examine, for instance, remote collections of pre-literate, pre-modern peoples or by sociologists to look into deviant groups such as urban street gangs. Biographies and ethnographies can both tell charming or fearful stories. They can be insightful, exciting and filled with the sort of beauty (or sublimity) that can show up in a well-wrought novel. What they do not commonly do is tell us much that is useful about larger social patterns. They tend to be examples in search of a theory, illustrations in need of a theme.
The essays in Sussman’s book are different. They offer a coherent approach to matters of profound practical importance, and they may contribute the development of a persuasive theory of power and communications in modern (and emerging postmodern) society. As "stand-alone" studies they are revealing enough; but, they are also closely and consistently argued and presented as parts of a general pattern that can be discerned by any attentive reader.
The book is divided into four parts, each presenting propaganda in relation to a different set of principles and practices:
- Propaganda in the Media;
- Propaganda in Public Culture;
- Propaganda and Global Hegemony;
- Propaganda and the State
If I have any quibble, it concerns the order of presentation. My own logic suggests the reversal of the third and fourth parts, allowing a sequential progress from technological to cultural to national and then to global issues. That said, the quality of the work more than makes up for any concern about the order of things. There is much material that would be of value to anyone concerned with the framing and dissemination of ideas in contemporary society. The chapters are uniformly penetrating, lucid, and should be fully comprehensible to intelligent college students, as well as to the informed public.
Following Sussman’s very useful introduction, the authors address important questions in the mass media, with particular attention to advertising, entertainment and the emergence of social networking—not merely as a convenient means to keep "in touch" with friends and strangers, but as "colossal marketing machines" in which the users are maximally exploited for profit by the corporate structures which only appear to be anonymous, ubiquitous and contentless in themselves. In fact, while these media excel at material (automobiles, deodorants) or immaterial (dating services, mail-order university degrees) product promotion or they seem to perform a relatively benign task. They give their audiences shopping options, and they also provide subscribers with the capacity to communicate faster, farther and more frequently than any other method from carrier pigeons to telegraphs and from telephones to Fed-Ex. Using contemporary information technology, we can access medical information, pay taxes, gamble away small fortunes and talk to our grandmothers in distant cities or distant lands. The capacity for abuse is endless.
The section ends with the extreme example of neoliberalism run amok in the case of the regime of Italian media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. Contributors Massimo Ragnedda and Glenn W. Muschert explore what happens when a corporate communications leader is able to enforce "government deregulation, [erode] ethical boundaries in institutional behaviour [and exploit] the privatisation of public agencies." The result is not the fascism of jackboots, sturm und drang, but "a new form of propaganda … that hides behind a cloak of freedom and openness, while unleashing a voluntarist regime of control. This new propaganda," they conclude, "is insidious in its softness." Its consequences, however, can be hard and harsh indeed.
Moving on to a more general discussion of the propaganda culture, Sharon Beder probes the "corporate discourse on climate change." She offers a detailed account of the ways in which, despite expressed public distrust of big business and a putative early interest in environmental protection, what may be the single greatest hazard to contemporary civilization has been turned into a faux debate about the science of global warming, never mind the issue of human agency in climate change. Success in this domain is measured partly in the tacit compliance with a economic agenda that alleges conflict between economics and ecology with jobs taking priority over environmental conservation. It is also partly to be found in the designed collapse of efforts to pass enforceable domestic legislation and to negotiate international agreements to control greenhouse gas emissions. It is also partly to be seen in the public feeling that opposition to the corporate onslaught is futile—the power of the financial-political-media complex is considered too overwhelming to oppose. Beder explores the enormous influence of right-wing American "think tanks" such as the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation, their private-sector funders including the Koch brothers and Exxon-Mobil, and their hired-gun "scientists" in giving credibility to industrial and commercial propaganda. It’s pronouncements and opinions are accepted as "news" in the print and broadcast media and dominate public discussion. We have, she suggests, witnessed the creation of a society in which the ruled have become complicit in the ideological structures and invasive influence of the rulers.
Of particular interest here are two chapters, one by Inger L. Stole and another by Michael Barker that clearly show how self-serving are "cause marketing" and "strategic philanthropy" by corporations and celebrities support for the "humanitarian industry." Expert firms manage publicity for superstars from Bono to Bill Gates in a concerted effort not only to campaign for private interests, but also to control public policy decisions in the ultimate interest of private gain. Bill Gates, after all, is applauded for donating computers to classrooms, but also stands to make the most profit from his donations by selling software to the schools. The software, of course, will also underscore the same corporate values that reduced school budgets, making the donations necessary in the first place. Philanthropy, in this case, can best be seen as a marketing strategy that brings with it a technocratic understanding of education, also a big benefit to the corporate sector.
In the section on global hegemony, Sussman’s authors address issues such as war and peace. Douglas Kellner examines the place of war correspondents in the promotion of international aggression in the case of the US invasion of Iraq and, by implication, the entire program of permanent war in what some wag has called the "Mid-Oil East." Having learned a lesson in Vietnam, where independent reporters were eventually able to tell something akin to the truth about that misadventure, and thus sour the American public on the "war," the Bush administration ensured at least initial enthusiasm for the attack on Iraq by spreading false information (non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction in the hands of a regime that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack in September, 2001). Working closely with the military, the media led the chorus of praise as "America Strikes Back" in the hawkish phrase that was popular among the CNN cheerleaders. Embedded news correspondents became, in effect, ancillary troops for the Pentagon and kept the flame alive in Aghanistan, at least until the longest foreign occupation in American history lost its appeal and television audiences switched allegiance to cheap "reality shows."
Edward Herman and David Peterson go on to explore the reporting of less violent events. Spreading "freedom and democracy" is a major slogan in the justificatory rhetoric of contemporary imperialism, but the ways in which some elections are declared fraudulent while others are legitimized is an important theme. The authors look at the ways in which political interests determine which foreign elections will be credited and which will not. They discuss a number of elections, but focus on two that took place in 2009. In Honduras, the election of "left-leaning" Manuel Zelaya annoyed the US government. So, President Barack Obama, who has maintained his country’s preference for friendly oligarchs, watched contentedly as a military coup ousted the democratically elected leader. The extent to which US covert operations enabled the coup is uncertain, but the effect of US diplomacy and the media in "delegitimizing" Zelaya is not. After illegally forcing Zelaya into exile (a tactic twice used in the overthrow of successive Haitian regimes, both led by the overwhelmingly popular Jean-Baptiste Aristide), the subsequent illegal "election" that followed the coup was praised while the systematic repression of dissent was studiously ignored.
Meanwhile, in Iran, a completely different interpretation of events was produced. No one in the Western media is apt to be congratulated for endorsing the legitimacy of elections that bring unpopular leaders to power: Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Hamas in Gaza and, of course, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran are certain to be accused of fraud, corruption, intimidation and an array of nefarious tactics, especially when the results of voting lean heavily in their favour. Nonetheless, the data presented here show an astonishing differential in media interest and coverage of events in the Honduran and Iranian elections. Murders of dissenters, attributions of fraud, and claims that the elections were "faked," "rigged" and "phony" show what the authors call a "beautifully working propaganda system" in operation. In Iran, for example, the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 27-year-old peaceful protester received 1,359 mentions in news accounts; in Honduras the killing of twenty-seven protesters, journalists and human rights activists got 39. None of this is to say that the government of Iran is praiseworthy or that its elections meet international standards of transparency and fairness. It is merely to underscore the fact that governments deemed to be hostile to Western, and mainly American, interests are shown in a completely different light to those deemed to be friendly. No editorialist advocates boycotts or the invasion of Honduras to restore a legitimate presidency, but threats to invade or even to use tactical nuclear weapons against Iran are being floated and are sure to become more exaggerated in the forthcoming US presidential election.
Moving on to the final section, Sussman himself makes clear that "of the core functions of a capitalist state—wealth accumulation, coercion, and establishing and maintaining its own legitimacy—the most complex and widely debated is that of legitimacy." Support of liberal democracies has traditionally depended on the credibility of pluralism—the notion that any pretensions to ruling class status by what C. Wright Mills famously called "the power elite" is modified not only by an electoral system that permits competition among two or more parties for the people’s vote, but also a perception that countervailing powers exist in civil society itself. So, competition in the media, trade unions’ capacity to balance the power of employers, free market economies in which producers struggle among themselves for consumer dollars, and a grand array of diverse religious institutions, social activists, interest group advocates are deemed essential elements in a any democracy worthy of the name. With such diversity of organizations and interests, it is said that politics is a civilized game in which no group triumphs permanently, no defeat is final and relatively equal players engage in an orderly competition for influence. Politics as the authoritative allocation of values through a well-understood, transparent and basically fair ecology of games ensures a free and just society.
The problem is, according to Sussman, that "under neoliberalism, the boundaries separating commercial and governmental institutions have largely collapsed." Governments, businesses, the media and, incidentally, academics and the educational system create an ideological atmosphere that encourages people to defer to what is, to conform to expectations and never to question the corporate interpretation of processes and events.
Accordingly, even though poignant stories of personal loss and barely contained expressions of rage accompanied the financial collapse of 2008, no sustained and systematic confrontation with the capitalist state or the corporate sector that sustain it was forthcoming. Indeed, if the American response is any indication of an emerging pattern, the most well organized opposition to "Wall Street," the so-called Tea Party, is itself funded by big business and directs its anger elsewhere—against welfare recipients, immigrants, trade unions, public servants, intellectuals and the "liberal elite." So confident are those in authority that the corporate media almost delights in reporting rants against the "liberal media" (ostensibly itself) and thus ensures that corporate owners have little to fear in terms of an incipient uprising.
Meantime, the social, economic and political discontent experienced by a growing proportion of people remains invisible. Every major newspaper has a "Business" section, but none have a countervailing "Consumers," "Environmental" or "Labour" section. Every television network has a regular business reporter and a dutiful daily accounting of the ups and downs of the stock market, the value of international currencies and the like. None pay attention to working conditions, trade union grievances or contract negotiations until and unless the possibility of a strike becomes salient. Economic growth and employment statistics are made known, but no one regularly reports on quality of life indexes or the contributions of culture, wellness and stress reduction through social investment in what is sometimes called the "pursuit of happiness."
The Propaganda Society makes all of these and other sins of commission and omission plain to the thoughtful reader. It reveals not merely the calumnies and corruptions of a corporate society out of control, but also the ways in which these offences become accepted as business as usual. The book’s final chapter is by Patricia Mazepa, who teaches Communications Studies at York University in Toronto. Although a treatment of national patterns in Canada, her overall thesis has wide applicability. Entitled "Canada’s Integrated System of State Propaganda," she discloses that the restructuring of the media and the insinuation of neoliberal perspectives into its normal business practices "so narrows the scope of information, dialogue, and range of debate possible that the content of commercial media is reduced to the status of ‘propaganda,’ supporting the political and economic interests of the state, the corporations that own them, and the overarching capitalist economy." She pays special attention to the growth of the military as a source of information and a suddenly crucial issue (it demands more funding, more jet fighters and a more "robust" role in international conflict). She also shows how government reorganization with an emphasis on crime control and a growing indifference to social, educational and health needs combine to advance neoliberalism, private sector profits and an increasingly impotent electorate. Thus, propaganda is no longer a campaign waged in support or opposition to this or that policy or perception. It defines the parameters of power and the boundaries of topics and ideas that are permitted as subjects of acceptable controversy. And, when the going gets tough, the fall-back position is to worry about the latest exploits of the Kardashians, the next sporting extravaganza or the winner of the most exciting talent contest or "reality" show. Those results can be tweeted and twittered while the serious business of running the economy, the government and the declining public sector are left to those ineluctably in charge.
Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Knopf, 1965), p. 148.
George Grant, "Protest and Technology," in Charles Hanly, ed., Revolution and Response: Selections from the Toronto International Teach-in (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1966), pp. 122-128; "Canadian Fate and Imperialism," in Technology and Empire (Toronto: Anansi, 1970), pp. 61-78.
Noam Chomsky, "Interview with Professor Noam Chomsky." Interview by Allison Kilkenny & Jamie Kilstein, Citizen Radio, April 1, 2009. http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20090401.htm.
Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1941).
Howard A. Doughty, teaches at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com