Jacques Ellul: Controversies in the Rise of Propaganda

Orientation

Controversies within propaganda theory

When I was preparing for a course I had created, “Brainwashing, Propaganda and Rhetoric: Dark Psychology in the 20th Century” I came across the name Jacques Ellul over and over again. Many of the quotes from his book Propaganda amazed me, considering the book was written almost 60 years ago. Still, when I decided to read the book, I had some reservations, thinking it would be dated in many places. In this article I hope to show that not only is it not dated, but it is still among the top theories in propaganda today.

Before we can begin to compare the propaganda theory of Jacques Ellul to other theories, we must address issues within propaganda theory. After doing that we will be able to see how the seven theories of propaganda (including Ellul’s) line up in relation to the controversies. How do we define propaganda? Is propaganda always bad?  What is not propaganda? Most people think propaganda is fundamentally irrational. But can propaganda be rational too?

How far does it reach? Does propaganda exist in all countries or are some more likely to use it than others?  Does propaganda try to change society, or does it reinforce what is already there? Is propaganda limited to the printed word and to images, or can it include monuments, music, coins, postage stamps or billboards? Does propaganda’s intent to change attitudes or behavior, or both? Are some social classes more susceptible to propaganda than others? Are people more vulnerable to propaganda in collectivist societies than individualists’ societies or is it the reverse?

Is all propaganda covert or is some of it out in the open? Is propaganda about facts, interpretations or evaluations? Can propaganda be truthful in fact or is it all lies?  How do propagandists treat their audience? What is propaganda’s relationship to political ideology? In other worlds do liberals, conservatives, fascists and socialists all use propaganda or do some use it more than others? Are propagandists Machiavellian, cynical manipulators behind the scenes or do they really believe in their propaganda? How fast does propaganda work? Is it a gradual process or does it impact its audience suddenly, like a conversion experience? Typically, propaganda is thought to exist in “authoritarian” states. But what about bourgeois representational “democracies”.

My sources for this article are Jacques Ellul’s great book, Propaganda, two terrific books by J. Michael Sproule Channels of Propaganda and Propaganda and Democracy and Jowett and O’Donnell’s textbook Propaganda and Persuasion.

The seven schools of propaganda

Moving from the right wing of the political spectrum to the left there are at least seven schools of propaganda:

  • Reactionary conservative political:

In the 1930s and 1940s this would include Thurman Arnold, Huey Long, Father Charles Edward Coughlin, the Radio priest. In the 1950s there was Joseph McCarthy and William F. Buckley. Contemporary examples might be Bill O’Reilly and the shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Glenn Beck. They are also consistent with neoconservatives or religious fundamentalists.

  • Commercial practitioners:

In the 1920s there was Ivy Lee, and George Creel and most famously, Edward Bernays, who for propaganda reasons changed his advertising campaigns from “propaganda” to “public relations”. These are typically advertisers.

  • Mass communication scientists:

These are the liberal institutions that do polling, most famously the Gallup Poll. Theorists include Paul Lazarsfeld, Elton Mayo, the later Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell. Often these are mass media academics who accepted grants from the state or from capitalists such as the Harvard Business School or the Carnegie Corporation.

  • Critical thinking movement:

In the center-left of the political spectrum is the critical thinking movement. Unlike all other schools, this movement says that the issue is less the presence of propaganda than it is the lack of critical thinking schools that can see through the propaganda. Theorists include the later John Dewey, Monroe Beardsley and Robert Ennis. Most often these theorists are college instructors.

  • Reform oriented liberals:

These are the writers and journalists that back in the day were called “muckrakers”. They think that all that is needed is for propaganda to be exposed. After that the critical thinking skills of the masses would take over. The first theorists included Upton Sinclair, the early work of Walter Lippmann, Alfred Lee (the director of the short-lived organization that conducted propaganda analysis), Robert Staughton Lynd and Vance Packard.

  • Sociological school:

This is the school of Jacques Ellul that I shall highlight in this article. Ellul thought that propaganda is the inevitable byproduct of a division of labor in society. He believed it is due to modernization and mass technology. Others with a sociological orientation included Charles Merriam and Graham Wallas.

  • Radical left:

These folks, like the extreme right-wing, think propaganda is the result of class warfare driven by capitalists. The anarchist, communist left was slow to develop theories of propaganda. One of the first was Start Ewing. Noam Chomsky is the most famous example, but his theory was developed in 1988, too late for the research referred to in this article. Besides college instructors, the radical left includes self-educated anarchists and feminists as well as others from different social movements.

The time span for this article is from World War I through the early 1970s. My focus is on mass media and does not include interactive technological breakthroughs such as the internet and various social media such Facebook and Twitter. The forms of media propaganda referred to here will be soapboxes, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, polls, books and film. I think you will find that mass media is a foundation for whatever additional forms of electronic media propagandizing that follow.

Most Provocative Points of Ellul’s Propaganda Theory

  • Unlike other theorists, Ellul argued that propaganda served both the upper classes and the lower classes for different reasons.
  • Unlike other theorists, he understood propaganda as inevitable in modern societies. There is no getting around it.
  • Unlike most other theorists, he saw masses of people as complicit in their own subordination. He saw them neither as victims of circumstance nor heroic masses.
  • He distinguished between hard, fast, political propaganda and soft, slow sociological. He called political propaganda “agitation”. Education is not outside propaganda. It is sociological propaganda.
  • He identified two techniques of propagandizing the masses. First kind is mithridatization which acts like a sedative and sensibilization which is about riling people up.
  • Unlike most other theorists of propaganda, Ellul followed Joseph Goebbels and said that the best propaganda is based on facts. It becomes propaganda with the interpretation of facts. Propaganda based on lies is a sign of weakness.
  • Most propaganda theorists thought the working class was most impacted by propaganda. Ellul argued that it is the upper-middle classes that create the propaganda and that is most likely to believe it.
  • Ellul distinguished horizontal propaganda, which was made inside the group, from vertical propaganda, which uses centralized power. An example of horizontal propaganda was the educational groups of Yankee soldiers organized by the Chinese communists.
  • For Ellul, propaganda does not come from the ruling class, but from the upper-middle class.
  • Industrialist capitalist “democracies” need propaganda because they depend on public opinion, which is disorganized. It requires propaganda to compete with socialist societies.
  • Unlike other theorists, Ellul makes a distinction between ideology and myth and argues that myth is more powerful.
  • His concept of crystallization claims that the individual has latent drives and stereotypes which are vague (based on the work of Karen Horney), and they then become the foundation of propaganda.
  • Unlike other schools of propaganda, Ellul argues that quantitative study of propaganda isn’t effective. One cannot tell how many people are reached and how effective white vs black propaganda is. At what point do you say it failed? At what point does the payoff justify the cost?
  • According to Ellul, psychological propaganda in foreign countries does not work. Propagandists are too ignorant of the attitudes, centers of interest, presuppositions and suspicions of the foreign population.

Definition, Purposes, Fields of Operation and Pervasiveness

Definition

As might be expected, there are considerable differences among the schools over whether propaganda is sinister or benign. Both the reactionary conservatives and the radical left sees propaganda as a product of primarily economic forces. The radical left sees the use of propaganda by capitalists to maintain control of their wealth. The radical right thinks propaganda is necessary to fight against the forces of communism. Both consider propaganda as immoral as the message, source and means are used by either communists or capitalists to perpetuate their power.

The muckrakers are critical of propaganda and see it as used in a wider span of areas, such as advertising, religion and sports, not just in the service of economics. They believe propaganda is immoral because its message, source and means are used to protect the status quo as it pollutes public opinion and undermines democratic thinking. The critical thinking movement agrees with the muckrakers.

Both the commercial practitioners and the mass communications theorists see propaganda as benign and moral. Bernays sees “public relations” as an outgrowth of more successfully circulation of commercial products to a larger audience. They think there is nothing wrong with that. For people like Bernays, propaganda is only immoral when it fails to disclose the source of information.

Mass communications theorists see propaganda as a benign alternative to force and for this reason, they believe it is moral. They think the polls are designed so political leaders can better control their population in order for the population not to resort to violence. The critical thinking movement interestingly points to the collusion of masses of people in propaganda. If the average person had good critical thinking skills, no one would pay attention to propaganda. Surprisingly, Ellul, as a sociologist, does not see propaganda as a product of class forces. He thinks, as I said above, propaganda is inevitable in any mass society just because people need to know what is going on politically and economically, and they can no longer find out through face-to-face contact. For him, propaganda might not be very moral, but it is necessary.

Manipulable use of the word “propaganda”

There are six forms of information control. On a spectrum they can be lined up according to the extent to which they have control over people. On the extreme right, we have brainwashing. Moving towards the left we have propaganda, then rhetoric (or persuasion), then mass and public entertainment. On the extreme left, and the least controlling, is “dialectic”. I will not define these words here except to say that most of them have negative connotations and so all propaganda theorists have a stake in mixing them together.

For reactionary conservatives, propaganda is mixed with brainwashing on the right and dialectic on the left, Since the CIA used the term “brainwashing” to describe what the Chinese did with Yankee soldiers during the Korean War, communist propaganda is mixed up with brainwashing techniques. At the same time, reactionary conservatives lump in the dialectical view of history as some vast mechanical system used by the communists to explain the world. For them dialectic is a vast, controlling philosophy.

Commercial practitioners like Bernays wanted no part of the word propaganda and turned it into “public relations” which was presented as a form of persuasion, or mass entertainment. Mass communication theories also avoid the term propaganda and suggest that news is simply “information” and movies are entertainment. The critical thinking movement also avoids the word “propaganda” by using the social psychological terms “mass persuasion” or “coercive persuasion”. All three propaganda theories on the left are not bashful about using the term propaganda to describe dominant power. The radical left uses the term dialectic as an alternative to propaganda. The muckrakers and the critical thinking advocates are more sensitive about distinguishing propaganda from what they advocate, which is rhetoric and dialectic. Both rhetoric and dialectic are used by journalists and in argumentation and critical thinking classes.

Purpose

The purpose of propaganda also has a wide variation of stances. The purpose for both the extreme left and extreme right is to unmask either the communist or capitalist threat. For the commercial practitioners the purpose of propaganda is to sell products. For the Mass Communication theorists, propaganda is to act as a safety valve to let the leaders know what the public wants or doesn’t want. For critical thinking theorists, their purpose is to expose the informal logical fallacies that typically go with interpreting propaganda. This might include ad hominem arguments, “either or thinking”, bandwagon and conflict of interests within the authorities. For the muckrakers, exposure is the name of the game whether it be the corporations or the state. Ellul has something interesting to say about this. He says the purpose of propaganda is a) to support existing elites in their competition with other elites and b) it is used by the masses that need propaganda to help them understand the complexities of large-scale social life.

Fields of operation

All three theories on the right of the political spectrum in the fields of operation argue that propaganda is only political. Bernays and his followers would sinisterly deny that propaganda is political, even though Bernays himself used propaganda to convince the American public to go to war (World War I) and to support the United Fruit Company against the Guatemalan government in the early 1950s. Mass communication theorists did not really focus on the impact of propaganda outside of politics. All four of the other theories argue that propaganda is present in advertising, television, and movies.

Discontinuous vs pervasive

How well can propaganda be combatted? Not surprisingly, reactionary conservatives, commercial practitioners and mass communication scientists think that propaganda is discontinuous rather than pervasive. The reactionary conservatives think propaganda is limited to the competition between left and right political wings. All other social institutions are neutral. For the commercial practitioners, propaganda is used by advertising companies and in the competition between them, there is no single message that is communicated. In other words, propaganda cancels itself out and the consumer wins! The mass communications theorists think that science is an island immune from the impact of propaganda. The critical thinking movement argues that educational institutions are less likely to be impacted by propaganda. All left wing propaganda theorists think propaganda is pervasive, but it can be combated by political agitation.

Orchestrated or competitive

How systematic are the propaganda mechanisms? As might be expected, right-wing reactionaries think that communist propaganda is seamless and all-controlling. The commercial practitioners think propaganda is very systemic in communist countries, grinding down the population into mindless robots. But in capitalist “democracies” the competition between Republicans and Democrats cancels each other out and the voter is free to decide. In advertising, commercial practitioners deny any orchestration. Advertising techniques are a set of gimmicks and recipes. For mass communication theorists, competition between fields of science allows no overall propaganda that crosses fields. Critical thinking theorists, muckrakers and radical leftists think that propaganda is systematic and orchestrated. Ellul’s sociologist theory has the most to say about this. For him, propaganda is carefully drawn from sociology and psychological research about the needs and psychological mechanisms of the public. There is knowledge about groups and its laws of formation and dissolution. Propaganda is also based on the Pavlov’s laws of association.

Is mass media a tool of control or is it neutral?

Reactionary conservatives say mass media is a passive tool used by liberals and communists. It accuses mass media of a “liberal bias”. Both commercial practitioners and mass media communications theories see mass media as a pure clearing house for finding out either what consumers want economically or what they want politically (through polling). For critical thinking advocates, all forms of mass media are designed to make people take cognitive shortcuts. Muckrakers think that mass media owners have their own self-interests in making money and they are not completely beholden to the ruling class. As left liberals they might point at neoconservative media like Fox News as controlling mass media. Like reactionary conservatives, radical leftists think of mass media as having no independent power and are the tools of ruling class or conservative forces.

Epistemology, Irrationality and Psychological Mechanisms

Is propaganda about lying?

Both the right-wing reactionaries and the left-wing socialists naively think that propaganda is about lies and that truth has no element of propaganda in it. For commercial practitioners’ propaganda is white propaganda – white lies, tall stories, euphemisms and cliches. Mass communications theorists say propaganda is lies about facts. They agree that propaganda could never be based on the truth. Muckrakers also tend to believe propaganda is usually about incorrect facts. Critical thinking theorists think that propaganda can be about lies or about the truth. Ellul’s understanding was the most sophisticated. He followed what Goebbels said about propaganda. The best propaganda is based on facts. Where the propaganda enters is in how the facts are interpreted. Like stereotypes, no propaganda could stick in people’s minds if there wasn’t more than a grain of truth to them.

Is propaganda about rationality or irrationality?

So, is propaganda rational or irrational? Right-wing reactionaries think that communist propaganda is super-rational and fail to take into consideration the emotional side of humanity. Left-wing socialists think that the appeal of reactionary conservatives, whether religious fundamentalists or fascists, is emotional and irrational. Appeals to God and country, blood and soil have no rational basis. Commercial practitioners and mass communication theorists both agree that propaganda is irrational. Commercial practitioners argue their techniques are to appeal to infantile fantasies, as we will see. Mass communication theorists think that anything outside their realm of science is potentially irrational. They think that privately people are more likely to be rational than as a mass. Both critical thinking theorists and muckrakers understand that propaganda can be both rational and irrational. Ellul agrees, adding that propaganda is mostly rational and that irrational propaganda (citing his book written in 1960) is a thing of the past.

What is the relationship between message, source and medium?

Reactionary conservatives are old-fashioned. They focus on the message and who the source is (is the source a front group for communists?) but they don’t’ take a stand as to whether the propaganda is from books, radio or television, or movies. Radical leftists are in the same boat except that they seek out which capitalist corporations might be behind the message. Commercial practitioners think the message, source and medium are not problematic. All are neutral and individuals are free to make up their own minds. Mass communications theorists are not critical of the message or the medium. They think of mediums as interchangeable. However, they do care about the source of the message and how well the message was received by the masses.

Critical thinking advocates are critical of messages and the political leanings of the sources. They are sensitive to which medium the message comes through because fast mass media will not allow people to digest the information and take it apart critically.  It is the muckrakers who are the most critical of all three. As journalists, they are very aware that movies have enormous propaganda potential for storytelling. Television and radio communicate more quickly and there is little time to think. Books, newspapers and magazines have less propaganda potential because the audience can regulate the information at their own pace. The sociological school of Ellul is more critical of the message and the medium but pays less attention to the source.

Does propaganda want to change attitudes or change actions?

Commercial practitioners were among the first theorists to understand that it is much too difficult to try to change people’s attitudes. It was only later that the reasons came out. Attitudes are based on long-standing socialization processes involving family, friends, religious training and elementary education. These socialization processes are too deeply ingrained to change with any short-term propaganda. Therefore, these practitioners target reinforcing existing attitudes but with a slight twist that might provide an impetus to buy something.

Reactionary fascists like Goebbels also understood this and simply reinforced what the German masses seemed to believe. Ellul agrees that propaganda is not about changing attitudes but rather about strengthening what is already there. Mass communications theorists were not really interested in getting people to act, but they hoped that by studying attitudes of masses in polling, leaders could better match the wants of the masses so that they did not lead to destructive collective behavior. The radical left has been historically the most naïve about this, thinking that working class people’s attitudes could be changed towards socialism. 

Propaganda mechanisms used

As far as the precise mechanisms used to propagandize people, only three of the seven theories have mechanisms identified. Commercial practitioners largely depend on both Pavlov in his laws of association and also Skinner’s rewards and punishment scheduling. Lastly, they used an early version of Bandura’s social modeling, having models who are attractive, powerful and seem to have expertise in the products they are advertising. This social modeling will cue the shortcuts of peripheral brain routes. Mass communications theorist Herbert Lasswell had a lot to say about techniques. In addition to working in mass communication he was also involved with the State Department. Lasswell identified three kinds of symbols:

  • Symbols of demand – the aspirations of the group seeking to produce events
  • Symbols of identification – defining the needs of the protagonist and the antagonist
  • Symbols of expectation – presenting facts as immediate or future objectives

Mass communication theorists also used Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory, which involved manipulating the desire for cognitive consistency.

Ellul also relied on conditioned reflexes but then added two other processes:

  • Mithridatization which acted like a sedative
  • Sensibilization which acted like a stimulant

To paraphrase, Ellul (183) mithridatization (the sedative part) is a toxin antitoxin process whereby a person is rendered immune to a poison by tolerating gradually increased doses of it. Closing up, he becomes insensitive to propaganda as a result of past shocks. He no longer looks at posters. He no longer reads the newspaper, but skims distractedly over it. Yet he continues to obey the catchwords of propaganda.

In a mass communication society, the individual no longer has either the independence or the choice of activities sufficient to release his tensions in an appropriate way. He is forced to keep them inside. Goebbels writes that propaganda should reduce frustrations and artificially resolve real problems and anticipate the frustrations to come when they cannot avoid them. Propaganda is like a cure that would numb the liver of an alcoholic in such a way that he could continue to get drunk without feeling pain in his liver, even though it would still kill him. Propaganda suppresses the warning signals that his anxieties, maladjustments, rebellions and demands once supplied. Now he is no more himself than he is when he reacts biologically to a tranquilizer. Propaganda will appear to be a true remedy, but for a sickness deliberately provoked to fit the remedy. Propaganda will intervene as the fake instrument for reducing these tensions by external action. They will flee contradictions by escape through the contemporary ideology of happiness.

If mithridatization is cooling people out, sensibilization is riling people up. Sensibilization is the increase of sensitivity or susceptibility to stimulation. Ellul says the individualist is more sensitive, not to the content but to the impetus it gives him for the excitement it makes him feel. He needs refreshment, a booster shot. When he goes to political movies it gives an outlet.  Propaganda offers release on a grand scale. Just like in Orwell’s 1984 two-minute hate rants, it will permit hatred and provides an object of hatred. It points out enemies to be slain – Jews, bourgeoisie, or communists. Authoritarian governments allow satirical journals attacking the authorities or a wild holiday paid for by the dictator (The Friday of Sorrows in Guatemala). The bureaucrat becomes the scapegoat, while the party remains above reproach. Letters to the editor by the public serve a similar function in Yankeedom. The sensibilization process has a freshness and novelty which correspond to new situations and gives the individualist the impression of having invented new ideals. It provides humanity with a high ideal and permits him to give into his passions while seeming to accomplish a great mission.

How quickly does propaganda work?

All schools of propaganda agree that propaganda works slowly. However, reactionary conservatives imagine that propaganda can also work suddenly as in a religious conversion. Commercial advertisers know that success is not getting someone to buy a new product but to influence an audience to change brands within a product the person buys regularly. They well understand that their propaganda does not stay with the masses for long. Mass communications theorists agree. Speaking politically, muckrakers understand that propaganda cannot dictate what a person thinks. However, through censorship, they can limit the parameters of what an audience can think about. In other words, political propaganda in Yankeedom cannot convince you to vote Republican or Democrat. However, by their refusal to allow third parties into debates they can define the parameters of what audiences think about. The viability of the capitalist system, the imperialist wars overseas and the prison industrial complex are issues outside the Republican-Democrat parameters, so they get no airtime.

For its time, the most sophisticated dynamical version of the relationship between the speed at which propaganda works is Ellul’s distinction between sociological propaganda and political propaganda. Political propaganda works quickly, attempting to spread a doctrine, dividing and excluding people, as in wars and revolutions. The language is emotional loaded with virtue and vice words. Political propaganda works best in public settings where people are at the same place and the same time. People are swept out of everyday life into a kind of adventure. Political propaganda may be overt at the culmination of a campaign, but much of political propaganda is covert beforehand.

At the other extreme, sociological propaganda attempts to unify rather than divide people. It works slowly and methodically. No crisis is at hand and society is moving along at a normal pace. Whereas political propaganda spreads a political doctrine, sociological propaganda spreads a way of life. While political propaganda works best in public, sociological propaganda does not require being in the same place and the same time. Masses take in sociological propaganda over months and even years. Sociological propaganda such as advertising, movies, sports and education is overt in part because it is not perceived as propaganda. The language of sociological propaganda is not inflammatory. It acts as a sedative, using euphemisms, clichés or vague terminology. The purpose is to support the existing system rather than overturn it. Please see Table A for a full comparison.

How Are the Dominant Institutions and the Public Perceived?

Dominant institutions: Controlling or neutral?

Reactionary conservatives are paranoid, thinking that dominant institutions have been taken over by socialists or communists. The radical left-wingers of propaganda theory think that the state, mass media, the educational system and religious institutions are all determined by capitalists’ drive for profits. They follow a version of Marx’s dominant ideology theory where the ideas of the ruling class became the predominant ideology of the workers.

Both the commercial practitioners and mass communications theorists think these dominant institutions are just fine. Commercial practitioners think these institutions are simply quantitative outgrowths of free speech. Mass communication scientists think state, media, education and religious forces all compete and so there is no central control. Critical thinking theorists will be moderately skeptical of these social institutions, but they say the main problem is people’s emotionalism and suggestibility. Muckrakers are cynical about these institutions because they organize themselves to influence the public in a certain direction before the public can formulate and articulate its own needs. This takes place through think tanks, lobbyists and foundations.

Ellul argues that all the dominant institutions are there to perpetuate their own existence and this applies to both capitalist and socialist societies. Surprisingly, Ellul says that it is not the ruling class that is responsible for mass propaganda. They are too remote to understand how to influence the lower classes. Instead, it turns the job over to the upper-middle class. But as Ellul points out, the upper-middle class does not do a good job with it. The lower classes do not read newspapers or magazines. The lower classes are more susceptible to TV, especially to shows depicting upper-middle class life. The lower classes have their own music and sports which the upper-middle class does not understand or belittles.

Masses: passive, active, neutral?

Up to now, we haven’t clarified how well or badly propaganda works with the masses. Are masses passive, active, neutral or passive and active together? Reactionary conservatives do not trust masses because they are distrustful of mass society. For them, masses are dupes of communist ideology. They believe they are also dangerous when manipulated by communists. It is only at the individual level that the average person thinks more clearly, so they follow a version of Gustav LeBon’s crowd theory.  The commercial practitioners look at the targets of their advertising campaigns as passive and hedonistic. They also agree with Veblen’s emulation theory that masses want to “keep up with the Joneses”. But at the same time, they cynically present the masses as freely choosing consumers. Ellul is rather hopeless about the masses, seeing them as disorganized and passive.

Mass communications theorists are more hopeful about the masses. They are passive but can become active once the facts are given to them by the polls. For critical theorists, there is a big difference between publics and masses. Publics have more potential because they meet in face-to-face gatherings. Masses cannot see each other face-to-face and can be active only if they have overcome the reasoning fallacies. Muckrakers think of the masses as temporarily foolish but as potentially active, capable of cooperation, but simply lack information about how dominant organizations obstruct their judgment. The job of muckrakers is to expose dominant institutions. The radical left understands the public most dialectically. They see the masses as victims of capitalist institutions. But they can become active and revolutionary when not oppressed by capitalist forces.

Dynamics between dominant institutions and masses: mechanical or dialectical?

There are two ways to imagine how the relationship between the dominant order and the masses can be conceived: either mechanically or dialectically. Both the radical right and the radical left have a mechanical understanding of the relationship. Both have what is called a hypodermic needle picture. The reactionary conservatives think that people are helplessly injected with communist propaganda unless combated by the forces of anti-communism. With the exception of mass psychologist Wilhelm Reich, leftist until the 1970s saw masses of people brainwashed by capitalist institutions which could only be overcome by the agitation of socialist organizers.

The commercial practitioners talk out of both sides of their mouths. They present the masses of people as being in control of their desires (the consumer is king) while the advertising agencies are simply doing the bidding of the public. So, the masses are the ones injecting the passive advertisers. But behind closed doors, advertisers think the masses are stupid. However, in practice they are always surprised that their advertising campaigns often fail. Mass communication scientists, critical thinking advocates and muckrakers all agree that the dominant institutions have the power, but the power is not so extreme that it can be called a hypodermic needle. Mass communications theorists understand the people in polls do not always go along with these institutions. The critical thinking movement argues that by utilizing more critical thinking tools masses can resist propaganda. Muckrakers also see people banding together and forming alternative media sources. Ellul sees the relationship between propagandists and masses as mutually constitutive. Masses need propagandists in order to understand more simply the complexity of the world. Propagandists need the masses to fight wars and produce profit.

Who is Most Susceptible?

Which social classes are most susceptible?

Earlier I said that reactionary conservatives had a rather cynical attitude towards the lower classes, dismissing them as dupes. However, they also think that it is the middle-class and upper-middle class intellectuals who promote communism, get carried away with the ideology they create and spin unrealistic prospects for a utopian future. Ellul agrees. He also says the social class most susceptible to propaganda is the upper-middle class for they are the ones who are creating the symbol systems and they are the most enthralled with them. He believes that they are more interested in the social issues that the propagandists target and because they are convinced of their own superiority in understanding them. They are more vulnerable to propaganda because they think they are beyond it.

The commercial practitioners also think the middle and upper middle classes are better targets because they have the money to buy the products. Advertisers spend much less of their money targeting the lower classes because the profit margins are too low. Mass communication theorists think the lower classes are more vulnerable because they are not interested in science and are irrational. Critical theorists think working-class, and especially poor, people fall for propaganda because they are less likely to have gone to college and been more likely to learn critical thinking skills. Radical leftists think working-class people are most vulnerable because they do not have the leisure time to understand precisely how they are being manipulated.

Are collectivists or individualists more vulnerable to propaganda?

Reactionary conservatives think that the individualism of industrial capitalist societies make people more vulnerable to propaganda because city living creates rootless individuals who are alienated from the religions that once gave them comfort. Conservatives don’t think that religion in itself is a form of propaganda. Ellul agrees, saying masses of people are more vulnerable to propaganda than the face-to-face public relations of people living in collectivist societies.

Commercial practitioners agree that the lack of mass media in agricultural or tribal societies make them less vulnerable. People in pre-industrial societies do not seem to have the “infinite needs” of individualists in industrial capitalist societies, most of which is created by advertisers in the first place. Mass media communications theorists, on the other hand, think propaganda is more prevalent in collectivist societies (religious beliefs, superstition) and that democratic processes in industrial capitalist societies would train them to be less vulnerable. Critical thinking theorists think collectivists’ lack of training in critical thinking would make them more vulnerable to propaganda.  Both the muckrakers and the radical left think the individualists of industrial capitalist societies are more vulnerable because they think they are too smart to be propagandized.

Who is easiest to mobilize: the committed, the indifferent or the undecided?

All seven propaganda theorists agree that people who are already committed to a position cannot be propagandized. They have too much of a stake in what they already believe to change. At the other extreme, it is too difficult to move people out of a position of indifference. When people don’t care, something dramatic has to happen like a natural disaster, a stock market crash or a revolution to make them care. Propaganda is not strong enough by itself. The people who are most likely to be moved to change propaganda are those who are mobilized but haven’t made up their minds. This is one reason why politicians in Yankeedom work harder to appeal to voters in swing states. They don’t bother with people who have demographically been shown not to vote, nor with states that have a history of voting consistently for Republican or Democratic candidates.

What is the Relationship Between Democracy and Propaganda?

Superficially it would seem that democracy and propaganda are at opposite points on the spectrum. Societies that were democratic would not have propaganda and those who had propaganda were in some ways not democratic. But the problem is that the seven theories of propaganda do not agree about what democracy is.

Most agree that democracy is defined politically as the right to vote. However, both commercial practitioners and the radical left think of democracy as economic, rather than political. Commercial practitioners think democracy is about consumption, having infinite choices in commodities is what democracy is all about. The radical left think democracy is about controlling the workplaces and deciding economically what is produced, how it is produced and where it goes. Mass communication theorists are the most middle of the road, thinking that democracy is having two political parties and voting for them. Critical thinking advocates think that democracy is less about parties and more about issues. Thus, critical thinking texts often have a section with perhaps, ten or twelve of the typical issues Republicans and Democrats argue about in Congress. The job of a critical thinker is to use critical thinking skills to write about or debate the issues. Muckrakers go further and argue that party debate or examining the issues are both done by individuals. For them democracy is about learning how to participate in small groups, coming to group decisions. An example of that is something called “participatory budgeting” where at city council meetings citizens come together to decide on the priorities of a city budget.

Both Ellul and reactionary conservatives think that democracy doesn’t work, but for different reasons. Ellul simply thinks democracy is impossible in a modern society and the word itself is used for propagandistic purposes to give people the illusion of choice. For the reactionary conservatives, democracy is looked upon as an unfavorable turn of events at the end of the 19th century. For political conservatives there is a natural hierarchy, placing people with superior talent and good breeding at the top and their inferiors at the bottom.  Democracy is understood as the rule of a mob that should never rule. Ortega Y Gasset would be the appropriate theoretician for this view.

Please see Table B for a summary of the seven propaganda theorists and their books spanning from the 1920s to the 1960s.

* First published in Socialist Planning After Capitalism

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.