December 4, 2016

The 20th century witnessed the concurrent rise of sophisticated psychological manipulation techniques and the technology necessary to disseminate them broadly. The French philosopher Jacques Ellul set out to study modern propaganda in the 1960s. What he found should be a warning to us all.

In one of the most insightful and revolutionary works written on the subject, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Ellul diverges from previous scholarship in that he considers propaganda to be a sociological phenomenon, one in fact that we cannot live without in modern technological society. Propaganda exists to adjust a normal person to an ever-changing social and technological environment which is profoundly abnormal given the vast majority of our evolutionary history. A modern individual must endure psychological alienation, dissolution of ancestral groups, enormous taxes, brutal wars, inescapable working life. Propaganda both integrates us into this milieu, and acts as an intermediary between us and the state.

Modern propaganda may be socially necessary, but it is not harmless. It exists everywhere, even in democracies, and its effects make us totalitarian in our mindset. We are easy victims because we lack the proper framework necessary to identify it, and because we underestimate its power. In Ellul’s words, “Propaganda is a direct attack against man. The question is to determine how great is the danger.”[1]

Propaganda, published in 1965, is a dense read. So dense in fact, that its dire message isn’t especially well known. It should be. What Ellul has to say is at once terrifying and edifying. This essay aims to condense and demystify Ellul’s analysis, and to build on it by suggesting concrete ways in which we can avoid propaganda’s detrimental effects.

What is propaganda?

Far from being simply lies and tall tales spread to change people’s minds, propaganda actually is a fundamental aspect of the way that all modern technological societies are organized, regardless of the structure of their governments. Ellul has made a close study of modern propaganda techniques and distribution across all types of societies going back to the late 19th century, including liberal democracies, aristocracies, and totalitarian regimes. He emphasizes that the type of government does not matter – propaganda is common to, and necessary in, all technologically advanced societies:

People keep saying, “Everything depends on what kind of a State makes use of propaganda.” But if we really have understood the technological State, such a statement becomes meaningless. The study of propaganda must be conducted within the context of the technological society. Propaganda is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustment, and to integrate the individual into a technological world [2]

Modern societies are held together by the thinnest of veneers. Only geographical boundaries and loose ideas about what constitutes shared norms serve to unite millions of people. Gone are the micro-groups of the past with which we once claimed identity; the village, the family, the church, the hunter-gatherer band. In place of these disintegrating micro-groups, we now have the vast impersonal expanse of mass society with which we are psychologically ill-equipped to deal. Propaganda is a result of technological advancement, because it fills our need for self-affirmation left in the impersonal void of loneliness and isolation which the individual experiences in modern society.

Certain sociological conditions also make a society ripe for propaganda. Most modern societies are both individualistic and mass in their makeup. This sounds paradoxical, but a fuller explanation is in order. Ellul argues that through most of human history, up until the 19th and 20th centuries when industry and technology spread widely, people were part of primary local groups. These micro-groups, including families, clans, villages, churches, and other organic social structures were very homogeneous, cohesive and naturally resistant to the effects of outside propaganda.

In China, for example, where the family was still very powerful, Mao Se-Tung’s objective, beginning in the 1950s, was to detach individuals from the old groups and traditional village organizations. His next objective was to use to encircle everyone with new groups based on opinion, on propaganda. [3]

As traditional micro-groups have broken down across the world, societies have become increasingly centered on the individual, who is often physically separated from family and uprooted psychologically from ancestral primary groups. While granting people a modicum of freedom, an individual in a technological society becomes anonymous, part of a crowd or a mass demographic. A modern mass society is usually densely populated, with relatively weak local organizations. Individuals in mass societies are grouped into large collectives based on strongly felt opinions (as opposed to organic groupings) and people have more or less similar standards of living. [4]

The propagandist knows that we are not psychologically well equipped to deal with the relatively new conditions of living in modern society – the anonymity, the increasing pace of life and work, noise, crowded cities, consumerism, family insecurity and the seeming absence of a meaning to life based on such conditions. This is where the psychology of integration propaganda comes into play, furnishing us with a message strong enough to offset these obvious disadvantages. Ellul states:

The conditions of life in mass societies tend to multiply Individual frustrations. They produce abstract fragmentary relations between people… totally devoid of intimacy…One can show how the feeling of insecurity or anxiety develops; trace the contradictions of our environment, the conflicts between socially accepted competition and the preaching of fraternal love, between the constant stimulation of our needs through advertising and our limited finances, between our legal rights and the shackles of reality. Propaganda responds psychologically to this situation. [3]

Propaganda in Representative Democracies

In addition to acting as a soothing, integrating influence for modern man, propaganda is also necessary in the more widely understood sense – as an intermediary between the mass and the modern state.

The state needs to create propaganda for two reasons. First, individuals in representative democracies have come to influence politics via participatory democracy. In a mass society, government decisions affect everyone, and everyone wants to have their say. Second, it is through the people’s say in government – public option – that the state derives its perceived legitimacy. While participation in government is generally a good thing, how much input the individual actually has is open to debate. Without public opinion, the state cannot sustain its power. It needs the mass to participate for its continuity. Therefore democracies must employ propaganda to influence the mass, and democratic propaganda no less pernicious than that of a totalitarian regime.

Propagandists know that the mass is, in general, not inclined to study issues in detail, and it must furnish individuals with talking points and ready-made positions. Often the point of democratic propaganda is to get the masses to demand what the state has already decided to do.

This state of affairs is a necessity in the modern world because true participatory democracy is not possible except in micro-groups. Effective democracy can only exist at the local level – where people really can come together to discuss issues and each have their say. This is not possible on a large scale. In order to obscure any drawbacks, democratic propaganda creates a myth around the virtue of participation. [4]

The myth can take many forms depending upon a society’s specific needs: the sovereignty of the people, the American Dream, and so on. That is not to say that these concepts have no validity on their own, as economic, philosophical, or historical ideas open to intellectual discussion and debate. But through propaganda, they become more like an ethos or a raison d’être. Democratic propaganda purposefully seeks to provide people with such a simplified, mythological worldview that precludes debate. Propaganda ceases where contradiction and debate begin.

Propaganda itself, even in democracies and when it is well-intentioned, is totalitarian. It is promulgated by an “aristocracy of technicians,” [5] who advance democracy as an unquestionable belief system. Paradoxically, democratic propaganda slowly breaks down the basis of democracy itself – the free person. Propaganda works to build a person who moves ahead with full confidence he is right. Democratic propaganda produces a distinctly undemocratic type individual – one who is intellectually intolerant, can’t stand criticism, only feels comfortable as part of a collective or mass, and holds fast to a belief structure. According to Ellul:

With the help of propaganda one can do almost anything, but certainly not create the behavior of a free man. A man who lives in a democratic society and who is subjected to propaganda is being drained of the democratic content itself – of the style of democratic life, understanding of others, respect for minorities, re-examination of his own opinions, absence of dogmatism. The means employed to spread democratic ideas make the citizen, psychologically, a totalitarian man. The only difference between him and a Nazi is that he is a ‘totalitarian man with democratic convictions,’ And the citizen can repeat indefinitely ‘the sacred formulas of democracy’ while acting like a storm trooper. [6]

Who is Vulnerable?

We have seen that propaganda is a sociological necessity in the modern world both for the continuity of modern state and for the integration of the individual into an impersonal mass society. All means of technology are now harnessed by propagandists to these ends. Propaganda must be total and nonstop to be most effective. Therefore, everyone is vulnerable to propaganda, even those who propagate its message. According to Ellul, the best propagandist believes what he or she is selling. He or she may even have good intentions:

It is a matter of reaching and encircling the whole man and all men. Propaganda tries to surround man by all possible routes, in the realm of feelings as well as ideas, by playing on his will or on his needs, through his conscious and his unconscious, assailing both his private and his public life – It furnishes him with a complete system for explaining the world, and provides immediate incentives to action. We are here in the presence of an organized myth that tries to take hold of the entire person. [5]

Because propaganda via technology is total and nonstop, intellectuals tend to be among the groups most vulnerable to its effects. This seems counter-intuitive, since we might expect the least educated members of society to easily fall prey to propaganda. But Ellul argues that anyone who is immersed in current affairs is vulnerable to propaganda, and intellectuals digest the largest amounts of secondhand unverifiable information via daily news consumption. News propaganda must not permit “time for thought or reflection.” [6]

In a democracy, everyone feels the need to have an opinion on everything and people are susceptible precisely because they feel that they are capable of judging for themselves. Propagandists are well aware that in order to reach someone psychologically you must first appeal to their superiority and convince them that they are nobody’s fool. No one wants to admit that they don’t have an opinion on something; except for those have done the most reflecting on a given subject, recognize its complexities, and don’t necessarily have answers.

Ellul stresses that he has experienced this phenomenon himself. “I am not judging propaganda with Olympian detachment, and that having suffered, felt, and analyzed the impact of the power of propaganda on myself, having been time and again, and still being, the object of propaganda, I want to speak of it as a menace which threatens the total personality.” To be propagandized is to obey someone else, he states.[7]

How can we fight modern propaganda?

We can’t escape propaganda in modern life, but we can learn to identify it and to act authentically in spite of it. Ellul’s message may sound very disconcerting, but the solution is contained within his analysis of the problem that we face. There are three specific steps that we can take to counteract the effects of subversive propaganda in our lives.

First, we must recognize that there is a problem. This is no longer the18th and 19th centuries when psychology and modern technologies were still in their infancy. The two have converged and today’s propaganda is so highly sophisticated and seamlessly integrated into our lives that many people tend to deny its very existence. Denial of the problem doesn’t stand up to reasonable scrutiny. We can’t afford to assume we are invulnerable to propaganda, or that it isn’t a problem in representative democracies.

Second, we must make discerning choices. Using technology, with all its benefits, is to simultaneously open the door to propaganda. We must be able to both identify propaganda and to make discerning choices as to the type and extent of the media that we choose to consume. When we read the news, respond to social media, watch a movie or TV, we should consider the messages and their purpose. The implicit point is often to direct us to view the world in a specific way and furnish us with a ready-made set of beliefs. Always analyze what you are seeing.

Finally, we should embody democracy. Democracy is a personality trait and a mindset of a free person, not just a system of government or an external condition which we happen find ourselves in. A democratic person respects the freedom of others and is open to debate and dialog. Be your own thought leader. Following a leader is to follow the mass, the majority which that leader represents.

Seek truth on your own. Periodically reexamine your opinions. Your belief structure should remain somewhat fluid, rather than fixed and dogmatic. Reading and reasoning remain the best defense against indoctrination by propaganda. It is only a sense of unquestioning certainty and perceived superiority in intellectuals which makes them vulnerable – not the process of inquiry itself.

Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes is eminently worth reading, understanding and
scrutinizing in its entirety. Ellul’s enduring work with a warning:

The only truly serious attitude…is to show people the extreme effectiveness of the weapon used against them, to rouse them to defend themselves by making them aware of their frailty and their vulnerability, instead of soothing them with the worst illusion, that of a security that neither man’s nature nor the techniques of propaganda permit him to posses. It is merely convenient to realize that the side of freedom and truth for man has not yet lost, but that it may well lose – and that in this game, propaganda is undoubtedly the most formidable power, acting in only one direction (toward the destruction of truth and freedom), no matter what the good intentions or the good will may be of those who manipulate it. [8]


1. Ellul, J. (1965). Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. New York, Vintage Books. Xvi
2. Ibid., 10
3. Ibid., 308
4. Ellul, J. and Troude-Chastenet, P. (2005). Jacques Ellul on Politics, Technology, and Christianity: Conversations with Patrick Troude-Chastenet. Eugene, Oregon, Wipf and Stock Publishers. 89
5. Ellul, J. (1965). Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. New York, Vintage Books. 241
6. Ibid., 256
7. Ibid., 111, 169
8. Ibid., 257

Share This


Your email address will not be published.