Excerpt from “Propaganda” by Jacques Ellul: People WANT to Hate, Propaganda gives them what they WANT

Propaganda by Jacques Ellul.  Pg 148-152, 155, 160

 [Let us accept as a premise that modern man] is more susceptible to suggestion, more credulous, more easily excited. Above all he is a victim of emptiness–he is a man devoid of meaning. He is very busy, but he is emotionally empty, open to all entreaties and in search of only one thing–something to fill his inner void. To fill this void he goes to the movies–only a very temporary remedy. He seeks some deeper and more fulfilling attraction. He is available, and ready to listen to propaganda. he is the lonely man (The Lonely Crowd), and the larger the crowd in which he lives, the more isolated he is. Despite the pleasure he might derive from his solitude, he suffers deeply from it. He feels the most violent need to be re-integrated into a community, to have a setting, to experience ideological and affective communication. That loneliness inside the crowd is perhaps the most terrible ordeal of modern man; that loneliness in which he can share nothing, talk to nobody, and expect nothing from anybody, leads to severe personality disturbances. For it, propaganda, encompassing Human Relations, is an incomparable remedy. It corresponds to the need to share, to be a member of a community to lose oneself in a group, to embrace a collective ideology that will end loneliness. Propaganda is the true remedy for loneliness. It also corresponds to deep and constant needs, more developed today, perhaps, than ever before: the need to believe and obey, to create and hear fables, to communicate in the language of myths. It also responds to man’s intellectual sloth and desire for security–intrinsic characteristics of the real man as distinguished from the theoretical man of the Existentialists. All this turns man against information, which cannot satisfy any of these needs, and leads him to crave propaganda, which can satisfy them.

This situation has another aspect. In our society, man is being pushed more and more into passivity. He is thrust into vast organizations which function collectively and in which each man has his own small part to play. But he cannot act on his own; he can act only as the result of somebody else’s decision. Man is more and more trained to participate in group movements and to act only on signal and in the way he has been taught. There is training for big and small matters–training for his job, for the driver and the pedestrian, for the consumer, for the movie-goers, for the apartment house dweller, and so on. The consumer gets his signal from the advertiser that the purchase of some product is desirable; the driver learns from the green light that he may proceed. The individual becomes less and less capable of acting by himself; he needs the collective signals which integrate his actions into the complete mechanism. Modern life induces us to wait until we are told to act. Here again propaganda comes to the rescue. To the extent that government can no longer function without the mass (as we have demonstrated above), propaganda is the signal to act, the bridge from the individual’s interest in politics to his political action. It serves to overcome collective passivity. It enters into the general current of society, which develops multiple conditioned reflexes, which in turn become signals for man to pay his part in the group.

At the same time, the individual feels himself diminished. For one thing, he gets the feeling that he is under constant supervision and can never exercise his independent initiative; for another, he thinks he is always being pushed down to a lower level. To be sure, we’re talking of the average man; obviously a corporate president, high-level administrator, or professional man does not feel diminished, but that fact does not change the general situation. The feeling of being unimportant stems from general working conditions, such as mechanization and regimentation; from housing conditions, with small rooms, noise, and lack of privacy; from family conditions, with loss of authority over children; from submission to an ever-growing number of authorities (no one will ever be able to assess fully the disastrous effect on the human soul of all the bureaus and agencies); in short, from participation in mass society. We know that the individual plunged into the mass experiences a feeling of being reduced and weakened. He loses his human rights and the mans to satisfy his ambitious. The multitudes around him oppress him and given him an unhealthy awareness of his own unimportance. He is drowned in the mass, and becomes convinced that he is only a cipher and that he really cannot be considered otherwise in such a large number of individuals. Urban life gives a feeling of weakness and dependence to the individual: he is dependent on everything–public transportation, the tax-collector, the policeman, his employer, the city’s public utilities. Separately these elements would not affect him, but combined they produce this feeling of diminution in modern man.

But man cannot stand being unimportant; he cannot accept the status of a cipher. He needs to assert himself, to see himself as a hero. He needs to feel he is somebody and to be considered as such. He needs to express his authority, the drive for power and domination that is in every man. Under our present conditions, that instinct is completely frustrated.   Though some routes of escape exist–the movies give the viewer a chance to experience self-esteem by identification with the hero, for example–that is not enough. Only propaganda provides the individual with a fully satisfactory response to his profound need.

The more his needs increase in the collective society, the more propaganda must give man the feeling that he is a free individual. Propaganda alone can create this feeling, which, in turn, will integrate the individual into collective movements. Thus it is a powerful boost to the self-esteem. Though a mass instrument, propaganda addresses itself to each individual. It appeals to me. It appeals to my common sense, my desires, and provokes my wrath and my indignation. It evokes my feelings of justice and my desire for freedom. It gives me violent feelings, and lift me out of the daily grind. As soon as I have been politicized by propaganda, I can from my heights look down on my daily trifles. My boss, who does not share my convictions, is merely a poor fool, a prey to the illusions of an evil world. I take my revenge upon him by being enlightened; I have understood the situation and know what ought to be done; I hold the key to events and am involved in dangerous and exciting activities. This feeling will be all the stronger when the propaganda appeals to my decision and seems to be greatly concerned with my action: “Everything is in the clutches of evil. There is a way out. But only if everybody participates. You must participate. If you don’t, all will be lost, through your fault.” This is the feeling that propaganda must generate. My opinion, which society once scorned, now becomes important and decisive. No longer has it importance only for me, but also for the whole range of political affairs and the entire social body. A voter may well feel that his vote has no importance or value. But propaganda demonstrates that the action in which it involves us is of fundamental importance, and that everything depends on me. It boosts my ego by giving me a strong sense of my responsibility; it leads me to assume a posture of authority among my fellows, makes me take myself seriously by appealing to me in impassioned tones, with total conviction, and gives me the feeling that it’s a question of All or Nothing. Thanks to such propaganda, the diminished individual obtains the very satisfaction he needs.

[Also], to the extent that modern man is diminished, he finds himself faced with the almost constant need for repression. Most of his natural tendencies are suppressed by social constraints. We live in an increasingly organized and ordered society which permits less and less free and spontaneous expression of man’s profound drives (which, it must be admitted, would be largely anti-social if completely unleashed). Modern man is tied to a timetable and rarely can act on the spur of the moment; he must pay constant attention to what goes on around him. He cannot make the noise he may want to make; he must obey a growing number of rules of all sorts; he cannot give free reign to his sexual instinct or his inclination to violence. For despite present-day “immorality,” of which these people complain, contemporary man is much less free in these matters than was the man of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. And in the world of politics, modern man constantly faces obstacles, which suppress his tendencies and impulses. But it is impossible to keep the individual in such a situation for long.

The individual who feels himself in conflict with the group, whose personal values are different from those of his milieu, who feels tension toward his society and even toward the group in which he participates–that individual is in a tragic position in modern society. Until recently, such an individual enjoyed a certain freedom, a certain independence, which allowed him to release his tension in external–and quite acceptable–actions. He had a circle of personal activities through which he could express his own values and live out his conflicts. That was the best way of maintaining his equilibrium. But in the technological society, the individual no longer has either the independence or the choice of activities sufficient to release his tensions properly.   He is forced to keep them inside himself. Under such conditions the tension becomes extreme and can cause illness. At that very moment propaganda will intervene as the(fake) instrument for reducing these tensions by external action.[1] To seal all outlets and suppress man in all areas is dangerous. Man needs to express his passions and his desires; collective social repression can have the same effect as individual repression. Either sublimation or release is necessary. On the collective level, the latter is easier than the former, though some of the most oppressed groups were the most easily led to acts of heroism and sacrifice for the benefit of their oppressors. […]

But whereas these possibilities of release are very limited, propaganda offers release on a grand scale. For example, propaganda will permit what so far was prohibited, such as hatred, which is a dangerous and destructive feeling and fought by society. But man always has a certain need to hate, just as he hides in heart the urge to kill. Propaganda offers him an object of hatred, for all propaganda is aimed at an enemy.[2] And the hatred it offers him is not shameful, evil hatred that he must hide, but a legitimate hatred, which he can justly feel. Moreover, propaganda points out enemies that must be slain, transforming crime into a praise-worthy act. Almost every man feels a desire to kill his neighbor, but this is forbidden, and in most cases the individual will refrain from it for fear of the consequences. But propaganda opens the door and allows him to kill the Jews, the bourgeois, the Communists, and so on, and such murder even becomes an achievement. Similarly, in the nineteenth century, when a man felt like cheating on his wife, or divorcing her, he found this was frowned on. So at the end of that century a propaganda appeared that legitimized adultery and divorce. In such cases the individual attaches himself passionately to the source of such propaganda, which, for him, provides liberation. Where transgression becomes virtue, the lifter of the ban becomes a hero, a demi-god, and we consecrate ourselves to serve him because he has liberated our repressed passions. A good deal of popular allegiance to the republic and the failure of Catholicism in France at the end of the nineteenth century can be traced to this battle over adultery and divorce.


pg 155

Finally, as a result of all the threats and contradictions in contemporary society, man feels accused, guilty. He cannot feel that he is right and good as long as he is exposed to contradictions, which place him in conflict with one of his group’s imperatives no matter which solution he adopts. But one of man’s greatest inner needs is to feel that he is right. First, man needs to be right in his own eyes. He must be able to assert that he is right, that he does what he should, that he is worthy of his own respect. Then, man needs to be right in the eyes of those around him, his family, his milieu, his coworkers, his friends, his country. Finally, he feels the need to belong to a group, which he considers right and which he can proclaim as noble, just and good. But that righteousness is not absolute righteousness, true and authentic justice. For what matters is not to be just, or to act just, or that the group to which one belongs is just — but to seem just, to find reasons for asserting that one is just, and to have these reasons shared by one’s audience.

This corresponds to man’s refusal to see reality — his own reality first of all — as it is, for that would be intolerable; it also corresponds to his refusal to acknowledge that he may be wrong. Before himself and others, man is constantly pleading his own case and working to find good reasons for what he does or has done. Of course, the whole process is unconscious.[3]

pg 160

[…] There is no question here of reassuring he people or of demonstrating the reality of a situation to them; nothing could upset them more.  The point is to excite them, to arouse their sense of power, their desire to assert themselves, and to arm them psychologically so that they can feel superior to the threat.  And the man who seeks to escape his strangling anxiety by any means will feel miraculously delivered as soon as he can participate in the campaign mounted by propaganda, as soon as he can dive into this liberating activity, which resolves his inner conflicts by making him think that he is helping to solve those of society.

For all these reasons contemporary man needs propaganda; he asks for it, he almost instigates it.  The development of propaganda is no accident.  The politician who uses it is not a monster; he fills a social demand.  The propagandee is a close accomplice of the propagandist.  Only with the propagandee’s unconscious complicity can propaganda fulfill its function; and because propaganda satisfies him–even if he protests against propaganda in abstracto, or considers himself immune to it–he follows its route.

We have demonstrated that propaganda, far from being an accident, performs an indespensable function in society.  One always tries to present propaganda as something accidental, unusual, exceptional, connected with such abnormal conditions as wars.  True, in such cases propaganda may become sharper and more crystalized, but the roots of propaganda go much deeper.   Propaganda is the inevitable result of the various components of the technological society, and plays so central a role in the life of that society that no economic or political development can take place without the influence of its great power.  Human Relations in social relationships, advertising or Human Engineering in the economy, propaganda in the strictest sense in the field of politics–the need for psychological influence to spur allegiance and action is everywhere the decisive factor, which progress demands and which the individual seeks in order to be delivered from his own self.

[1] It is well known to what extent modern man needs escape. Escape is a general phenomenon of our civilization because man has to battle against far too many contradictions and tensions imposed on him by the conditions of life. He seeks to flee these difficulties, and is encouraged to do so by the contemporary ideology of happiness. Propaganda offers him an extraordinary possibility of escape into action.

[2] Propaganda thus displaces and liberates feelings of aggression by offering specific objects of hatred to the citizen; this generally suffices to channelize passion.

[3] The individual reconstructs his past to demonstrate that his conduct was right. But this is justification rather than explanation of behavior. Man thus lives in a seemingly reasonable fiction.

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