More on Propaganda from Jacques Ellul

WWI british propaganda poster

A typical World War-era propaganda poster.

I’ve been going back reading more of Jacque’s Ellul’s excellent text, “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes” (in fact, I reviewed half of the book here, and never finished the other half of the review). It is difficult to know where to begin when reading such a “dense” book (The Technological Society is even more dense than this!).

Brief Biography of Jacques Ellul

jacques ellul

Jacques Ellul

Ellul himself is an interesting guy. Born in Bordeaux, Ellul became a leader in the French Resistance during the Second World War. He eventually became a Christian after, as he is quoted on Wikipedia as saying, a “a very brutal and very sudden conversion.” He authored a multitude of books, mainly on sociology, philosophy, politics, and theology.

Disillusionment with Technology

Ellul is something of a quandary for me. For most of my life, I thought that technological improvement and greater efficiency of machines (and more generally, the efficiency of algorithms) was the ultimate way to improve mankind’s state in the world. But Ellul is the first writer I’ve come across to really challenge those ideas to me (though other present-day events have made me reconsider whether technology is really leading to “progress”, such as the computer science profession’s and Silicon Valley’s complicity with the US government in turning America into a high-tech electronic police state). According to Ellul, the powers of science and technique are taking over our lives, crafting us into slaves to technology and algorithm. Others have explored the idea, though not at the depths of Ellul. Orwell expressed similar frustration in his essay on the atomic bomb (which I have written about here in relation to the advent of drones). The increasing dominance of science only appears to increase the power of already-powerful transnational corporate entities and national governments (to the extent that these two bodies remain separate). The increase in power extends far beyond better weaponry, but to massively increased surveillance powers, more insidious propaganda, greater control over the minds of the youth, and overwhelming information dominance on every aspect of people’s lives.

The Pitfalls of Small-Group Psychological Experiments on Propaganda

Discussing the effectiveness of propaganda in psychological studies, Ellul repeatedly rejects the findings of small group experiments. He claims small-group experiments do not adequately replicate the real-world total-immersion properties of an orchestrated propaganda effort. There may be some truth to his claims, but with today’s greater and greater intrusiveness of sensors and cloud-based activity logging, I believe it will now be possible to study (and worse, improve) propaganda with perfect information about the societal state, without requiring the use of small research-based test groups. With the dawn of the Internet of Things, the entire society will be the test group, and the effects of propaganda methods will be accessible to near-immediate observation and adjustment. Such methods were pioneered by the analytics wing of the Obama for America campaign, where repeated adjustments to email messages were crafted to maximize campaign donations from email subscribers (among other feats of big-data processing). Such methods in the future will be employed upon entire populations, as the data pile grows higher and higher on all of us.

The Dismal State of Sociology

Reading Ellul’s work makes me bemoan the current state of the sociology profession, which has degenerated into little more than left-wing Democratic Party political activism and political indoctrination masquerading as a rigorous academic discipline. One can only imagine how much further the study of the human interactions and societies would be were it not for the infiltration of the universities that took place during the Cold War. Nonetheless, I do not believe there will be much future in the sociology profession, as sociologists themselves will become victims of technique, mathematics, and the scientific method. I predict that most modern “professional” sociologists will end up being chased from their own profession, as whiz kids armed with big-data analytics know-how and humongous datasets repeatedly blow their pet theories to smithereens. The only recourse will be (as is already being eye-rollingly done) to accuse the mathematics itself of being racist. When dealing with such idiocy, jokes practically write themselves.

The death of the doctrinaire faux-intellectuals that compose sociology faculty will be a harbinger of things to come. I believe that the power of propaganda is still not fully tapped, as the neurological sciences continue to make incredible progress in unlocking the secrets of the human brain, and identifying the link between brain structure, brain wave patterns, and belief systems. The beliefs themselves will become irrelevant, as the goal of propaganda is always action. It is only a matter of time before the advances in the human sciences of genetics, biology, group psychology, and psychometrics are fused with big data analytics to allow for the crafting of devastatingly effective propaganda with ruthless quantitative accuracy. Using such methods, entire nations will be steered as easily as one steers an automobile. Who will wield such power over us first though? Will it be the tech corporations, or will it be the State itself? I would not be surprised if this fusion of neurology, big data analytics, and psychology spawns a new field of study: psychological engineering.

Re-Diving Into the Book

Most of the discussion in this blog post comes from the Preface to the book, which itself is as dense as any of the further chapters. The book is somewhat dated, since the overwhelming emphasis of the book is on the propaganda systems of the great totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century: The Eastern Bloc, Communist China, and Nazi Germany.

The first line of the preface is instructive:

“Propaganda, by whatever name we may call it, has become a very general phenomenon in the modern world.”

“…by whatever name we may call it…” is a spooky phrase, which reveals the fact to us that most of the information we consume in the news media, advertising, and entertainment industry could probably be described as propaganda. In fact, you can acquire a university degree in the subject – only it is termed Public Relations. Well-funded political operations maintain their own ministries of propaganda for the construction of positions, authoring of talking points, and the framing of debates. Propaganda itself comes from Latin for “propagation” – that is, the propagation of a message.

As Ellul correctly points out, propaganda is not simply the government telling you to believe something. In fact, belief is not the goal of propaganda – it is action. It is often extremely labor and resource-intensive to convince someone to change deeply-held convictions, with minimal reward in return. When Madison Avenue comes up with some new jingle or slogan regarding a product, the goal is to make it stick into your head until you buy the damn thing, not agree that the product is useful or good for you.

Propaganda and the Dominance of Technology

One of Ellul’s primary assertions in the book (which he expounds upon in more length in The Technological Society), is that propaganda is a natural pre-condition for the health and development of the modern technologically-advanced state. Whether that is actually true or not, I am not sure, but there is some truth to the idea. Modern research programs in the sciences require billions of dollars in resources, and thousands of highly trained and “educated” personnel to pull off. Heck, in 2014 the pharmaceutical industry alone spent over $50 billion on research and development (and in 2012, about $25 billion on propaganda). All of this orchestrated research and development requires a highly ordered and regimented society to operate smoothly; you cannot have a technologically advanced civilization with millions of people independently formulating their own ideas, coming to their own conclusions, and worst of all, acting of their own volition. Its a big beehive – and there are thinker bees and worker bees.

More quotes abound:

“…the Communists, who do not believe in human nature but only in the human condition, believe that propaganda is all-powerful, legitimate (whenever they employ it), and instrumental in creating a new kind of man. American sociologists scientifically try to play down the effectiveness of propaganda because they cannot accept the idea that they individual – that cornerstone of democracy – can be so fragile; and because they retain their ultimate trust in man.”

Unfortunately, as I have repeatedly observed, the power of propaganda is real, powerful, manifest, and insidious. I cannot begin to tell you how many otherwise-intelligent people I met in graduate school were politically asleep and formed their political opinions on the basis of jokes they heard on The Daily Show (a show which is not even good propaganda, since good propaganda is supposed to be composed of entirely true facts). I hesitate to call myself a “conservative”, but whatever I was, everyone else at school was pretty much a toe-tag zombified liberal Democrat.

The State’s Ascension to the Role of Husband

One aspect of the technological-advance civilization Ellul did not anticipate was the State’s uprooting of males from the home, and the State becoming the de facto husband to huge swaths of women (see my review of Sexual Utopia in Power here). Moving forward into an even more technologically-dominated society, we may be entering an era where the high-testosterone male is more of a liability to the State than an asset, and will be subject to tight controls on his behavior for the entirety of his life. The State seems to believe it can extract the most utility from its captive populations by tending a small farm of tax-paying, low-testosterone, high-IQ tech worker males to pay for the goodies and set asides to women. This tactic may be even more powerful than the propaganda Ellul discusses, as women, lacking spine for the most part, will go along with whatever plans the State has in exchange for a greater share of resources from the tax-paying, low-testosterone tech worker class.


Considering I only got about half-way through the Preface and was able to write this much, I think we shall have some way to go before I completely extract all of the thoughts I can out of this book. Most of the points I have discussed already are merely expounded upon at greater length in the book, and it is my hope (if I have the time) to write a blog post or two about each chapter, until the whole book is covered (I am debating still if I ought to include the lengthy Appendix).


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