Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and Propaganda

I have been wanting for a while to write something about the whole uproar surrounding WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning (presumably the chief hero in this whole thing whose natural allies seem to have temporarily forgotten about him because of the drama and visibility of Julian Assange’s current situation). But every time I start focusing on a particular aspect, I find that it has already been covered better than I can do by someone else, often Glenn Greenwald in particular. Some other pieces that I have liked are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Instead of echoing what other people have already articulated, I want pull back and look at the current events in light of Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, which I mentioned in a post on 23 November. The following is a mix of paraphrases and direct quotes from section 4, “Propaganda and Democracy,” of chapter 5, “The Socio-Political Effects.” I intend to tie some of the ideas below to the Bradley-Manning-WikiLeaks (BMWL) brouhaha later, perhaps next week.


In Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jacques Ellul asserts that raw facts are subordinate to propaganda. “Facts do not assume reality in the people’s eyes unless they are established by propaganda. … For modern man, propaganda is really creating truth.”

He further asserts that propaganda is totalitarian by its nature, not because it has been used to the limit by totalitarian states, but because “the ultimate aim of all propaganda” is to provoke “action without prior thought.” This implies that propaganda is immanently anti-democratic since democracy depends on individuals being informed and able to participate in debate and deliberation to judge the quality of decisions being made by elected government officials and the agents of the state that are, in theory, accountable to the elected government.

Ellul notes that many people, especially journalists and commentators, in democracies tend to believe that “nothing can touch democracy: on the contrary, [democracy] impresses its character on everything it touches.” And even many people who study propaganda carefully harbor a belief in the possibility of setting up “a propaganda system that expresses the democratic character and does not alter the working of democracy.”

Although a democracy may not allow the means of propaganda to be formally monopolized, the “trend everywhere is in the direction of a very few, very powerful companies controlling all the propaganda media. … Assuming that information is an indispensable element of democracy, it is necessary that the information promulgated by the State be credible. Without credibility, it will fail. … The problem then is whether the State will support a private competitor who controls media equal or superior to its own but makes different propaganda. It may even be entirely legitimate for the State to suppress or annex such a competitor.”

“Some will say: ‘Freedom of expression is democracy; to prevent propaganda is to violate democracy.’ Certainly, but it must be remembered that the freedom of expression of one or two powerful companies that do not express the thoughts of the individual or small groups, but of capitalists interests or an entire public, does not exactly correspond to what was called freedom of expression a century ago.”

Ellul proceeds to quote Rivero, who says:

“In the nineteenth century, the problem of opinion formation through the expression of thought was essentially a problem of contacts between the State and the individual, and a problem of acquisition of a freedom. But today, thanks to the mass media, the individual finds himself outside the battle … the debate is between the State and powerful groups. … Freedom to express ideas is no longer at stake in this debate. … What we have is mastery and domination by the State or by some powerful groups over the whole of the technical media of opinion formation … the individual has no access to them … he is no longer a participant in this battle for the free expression of ideas: he is the stake. What matters for him is which voice he will be permitted to hear and which words will have the power to obsess him.”

And here Ellul points out: “It is in the light of this perfect analysis that one must ask oneself what freedom of expression still means in a democracy.”

“…what characterizes democracy is that it permits the expression of different propagandas. This is true. But it is impossible to permit the expression of all opinion. Immoral and aberrant opinions are justifiably subject to censorship. Purely personal opinions and, even more, certain political tendencies are necessarily excluded. “No freedom for the enemies of freedom” is the watchword then. Thus the democracies create for themselves a problem of limitation and degree.”

“In time of war, everybody agrees that news must be limited and controlled, and that all propaganda not in the national interest must be prohibited. From that fact grows a unified propaganda. The problem that now arises is” that war “is no longer an exceptional state” but is “permanent and endemic.” And Ellul asserts that propaganda itself is responsible for this perpetual war footing.

He goes on to note that democratic propaganda “is an instrument not of passion but of reason. … The tradition of respecting the individual has not yet been eliminated, and this leads to all sorts of consequences. First, it limits propaganda. The democratic State uses propaganda only if driven by circumstances—for example, traditionally, after wars. But whereas private and domestic propaganda is persistent in its effects, governmental and external propaganda evaporate easily. Besides, such propaganda is not total, does not seek to envelop all of human life, to control every form of behavior, to attach itself ultimately to one’s person. A third trait of democratic propaganda is that it looks at both sides of the coin. The democratic attitude is frequently close to that of a university: there is not absolute truth, and it is acknowledged that the opponent has some good faith, some justice, some reason on his side. It is a question of nuances. There is no strict rule—except in time of war—about Good on one side and Bad on the other.”

Ellul refers to and endorses a distinction made by Harold D. Lasswell between the propagandas of totalitarian regimes and democratic regimes. The former customarily use propaganda to produce effects in the masses that the ruling elite do not participate in. Conversely, the propaganda of the latter usually springs from what those in power really feel and which they want the masses to participate in — “It is a communal action.”

At this point, Ellul judges that everything said above about democratic propaganda “adds up to ineffectual propaganda. … Precisely to the extent that the propagandist retains his respect for the individual, he denies himself the very penetration that is the ultimate aim of all propaganda: that of provoking action without prior thought. By respecting nuances, he neglects the major law of propaganda: every assertion must be trenchant and total. To the extent that he remains partial, he fails to use the mystique. But that mystique is indispensable for well-made propaganda.”

Furthermore, “propaganda always creates a schism between the government and the mass. … Ultimately, even if one tries to maintain confidence and communion between the government and the governed, all propaganda ends up as a means by which the prevailing powers manipulate the masses.”

The conclusion is that employing the techniques of propaganda leads to abandoning “the traits that are characteristic of democracy but paralyzing for propaganda: the combination of effective propaganda and respect for the individual seems impossible.”

As an addendum, “Jacques Driencourt has demonstrated that propaganda is totalitarian it its essence, not because it is the handmaiden of the totalitarian State, but because it has a tendency to absorb everything. … It means that when one takes that route, one cannot stop halfway: one must use all instruments and all methods that make propaganda effective. One must expect … that the democracies will abandon their precautions and their nuances and throw themselves wholeheartedly into effective propaganda action. But such action will no longer have a special democratic character.”

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, translation by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner, Vintage Books Edition, 1973 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1968) 235–242.


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