More Cliff’s Notes re Jacques Ellul

Both proprietors of this website think a great deal of Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda, so our discovery of Daniel Bois’s “Why Do People Not Understand Jacques Ellul?” <> was welcome.  We reprint it below to encourage all to read or re-read Ellul’s classic.  Mr. Bois suggests why Ellul deserves our attention.

“Books & Thoughts” column from the Montreal Review in May 2010

Jacques Ellul wrote a book about propagandaPropaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. This book is unique because it talks about long term propaganda and most of the books today on this subject tend to speak on short term or obvious forms like advertising. Ellul says many things in his book, it is quite dense and full of information. This is not a book you want to just glance at or “read vertically”, jumping from paragraph to paragraph because you will miss crucial concepts. It seems that many may have done that when they comment Ellul whether they praise or critique him.

Ellul argues that authoritarian governments never really need propaganda as much as democratic societies do and when the authoritarian governments of the past (communist and fascist) used propaganda, it was an obvious type. One could insinuate that it would be amateurish level and much easier to spot. Nonetheless many people in the past fell prey to this propaganda as much as people today fall prey to advertising campaigns. A democratic society uses a more sophisticated form of propaganda, one which is long term in process and result; again one could insinuate that this would be of a professional level and much more difficult to spot.

One of the ironies of propaganda to work is that its population must be educated. Ellul argues that the university education forms the next generation of propagandist to manipulate its society. In other words, the more highly educated you are, the more integrated you are in this propaganda and its dissemination. Remember Ellul is not talking about the obvious Nazi or Communist propaganda during the Second World War which was for a short term campaign using a vertical process (top down approach easily countered by a competing top down approach). No, Ellul is talking about the horizontal process similar to how viruses infect adjoining people around them. Imagine an intellectual virus which spreads itself similar to a biological virus, through contact and multiply this with mass media technology as a delivery system. 

So the more educated you become, the less aware you are that you are a victim of propaganda and the more you are ready to spread your ideology to others who will in turn reinforce you and be reinforced by you in a horizontal process. Leaders aren’t telling you what to think (directly), you are being told by your peers what to think and you pass along this information to others to inform them what to think. Then when this ideology has reached a substantial portion of the population, you demand the leaders to comply and they reluctantly do so (which was their intention 30 to 40 years previously, but they won’t tell you this). This is the essence of what Ellul says in his Propaganda book.

Authors who have cited Ellul as their personal inspiration come up with the following arguments: Nazi and Communist propaganda are to be avoided at all costs in our wonderful democratic societies because we do not want our great democracies to transform themselves into authoritarian regimes that use violence to force compliance. This can be avoided through education. The higher level of education you receive, the easier you can avoid the pitfalls of propaganda. Our democratic institutions can only function properly when not using propaganda, and the mass media prevents propaganda from overwhelming us.

This is quite disturbing because every single argument they use completely contradicts what Ellul clearly states in his book. Ellul is not being obscure, he flatly states that “2+2 is equal 4 and here is why”. The scholars who quote Ellul end up saying that “2+2 is equal to everything but 4, just look at the Nazis”. In the end, students who read the latest books on propaganda and ignore the dense works of Ellul will end up thinking that they are knowledgeable about propaganda and become its worse victims.

Of course, if we assume that Ellul is accurate in his view on propaganda, this very act of misunderstanding him would be proof of his claim: Propaganda makes its victim believe that he is immune, hence easier to manipulate. What would universities be doing with these modern textbooks that claim education will prevent one from being victimized in propaganda? Well it seems that they prove Ellul correct. Ellul says that Nazi and Communist propaganda is the easiest form to withstand and modern scholars claim that we must be eternally vigilant from falling victim to such insidious forms of propaganda as we witnessed with the Nazi and Communist regimes. (Yet modern advertising campaigns use short term techniques that no one bothers to condemn). So we focus on the vertical integration and pretend that the horizontal integration is non-existent, demonstrating propaganda at work in our society without opposition.


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