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.

Summary

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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Plutocracy

Plutocracy: government by the wealthy; the rule or dominion of wealth or of the rich

Oligarchy: government by the few; a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes; also: a group exercising such control

Whatever else may be true of civil governments, they are primarily systems of depredation, capture, piracy, thuggery, gangsterism, racketeering, etc. But the degree to which they fleece the societies they lord over varies widely. Some are never far from provoking the population to revolt. Others are restrained enough to be tolerated by all but a small part of the population — and even lauded by a large part — for a long time.

But greed eventually leads every regime to provoke open revolt. The question of whether a revolt is bloody or bloodless depends mostly on the government. Democracy’s chief, perhaps lone, credit is that it gives wider berth than any other form of government to the possibility of bloodless, rather than bloody, revolution.

Bill Moyers spoke, as part of the Howard Zinn Lecture Series, on 29 October 2010 at Boston University about the slide in the US back toward the plutocracy of the Gilded Age. The universal tendency of corporate and political power to merge gets attention periodically in public discourse. Rather than try to construct my own overview of the problem, I leave you to read or watch Moyers’ speech.

One of the specifics that Moyers discusses is efforts by the likes of the Koch brothers and Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence, to defeat health care reform. Dovetailing nicely with this is a Bloomberg article about the US Chamber of Commerce’s role in delivering the US into plutocracy. Of course, that’s not what the Bloomberg piece is supposed to be about. It’s about the money ($86.2 million) that health insurers gave AmCham to oppose health care reform.

It’s a nice piece of journalism that illustrates the lengths to which the health insurers went to oppose health care reform and the lengths to which they went to keep the extent of their opposition hidden. It also illustrates AmCham’s role as a money-launderer for corporations that want to influence the political process anonymously.

In the words of Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and current head of the political activity practice at a law firm in Washington, DC, “They [the health insurers] clearly thought the Chamber would be a more credible source of information and advertising on health-care reform, and it would appear less self-serving if a broader business group made arguments against it than if the insurers did it.”

Bloomberg focuses on the fact that the insurers were negotiating with legislators in drafting what became the Affordable Care Act with a professed interest in seeing reform done well while simultaneously and anonymously attacking the reform effort wholesale. They were able to exert influence from the outside without losing the credibility needed to influence the process from the inside.

This gets to the issue of disclosure of and restrictions on lobbying methods and the funding of electioneering activities and the rest of the “soft” corruption that tips a democracy into a plutocracy. Moyers closes his speech by exhorting us to organize to pass legislation that would, among other things, nullify the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. I’m all for that, and I say let’s go further and overturn the legal fiction — established by cases such as San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1882), Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), and Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Beckwith (1889) — that property (e.g., a corporation) is a person (which is the inverse of the equally absurd and now discarded legal fiction that a person is property).

However, I don’t believe that such efforts, even if successful, will accomplish a lot. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party both represent the wealthy. The political system is run for the benefit of the top 10% of income earners, and the trick of conservative consolidation is to use some of the resources of this elite 10% to make certain that the next 40% of income earners fear the bottom 50% more than they resent the top 10%. Rhetoric aside, the Democratic Party is conservative in the literal sense that they wish to maintain the bias in favor of the wealthy that is inherent to the current political economy.

There have been periods when the political economy was healthier than it is now, and this fact makes it seem reasonable to expect that significant improvements can be made now, that there is hope for improvement. After all, democracy is a strictly utilitarian system. It is not itself a reasonable object of faith or hope, but it seems to allow room for some kind of faith or hope for progress.

However, I think this is a deception. Societies under democratic systems of government have had ups and downs in the past, but I think there is no longer any good reason to expect or even hope for significant periods of upward momentum toward justice, peace, prosperity, or whatever else may seem like a worthy goal.

The reason has to do with the nature of the technological society, a concept described by Jacques Ellul in a book of that name. I recently read another book by Ellul that addresses propaganda as a particular class of technique in the nexus of techniques composing the technological society: Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1965). I want to quote a passage (translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner) from section 3, “Propaganda and Grouping,” of chapter 5, “The Socio-Political Effects”:

“One can say that propaganda almost inevitably leads to a two-party system. Not only would it be very difficult for several parties to be rich enough to support such expensive campaigns of propaganda, but also propaganda tends to schematize public opinion. Where there is propaganda, we find fewer and fewer nuances and refinements of detail or doctrine. Rather, opinions are more incisive; there is only black and white, yes and no. Such a state of public opinion leads directly to a two-party system and the disappearance of a multi-party system.

“The effects of propaganda can also be clearly seen in view of what Duverger calls the party with the majority mandate and the party without that mandate The party with the majority mandate, which ordinarily should command an absolute majority in parliament, is normally the one that has been created by propaganda. Propaganda’s principal trumps then slip out of the hands of the other parties. All the latter can do then is to make demagogic propaganda, i.e., a false propaganda that is purely artificial, considering what we have said about the relationship between propaganda and reality. (In other words, the party out of power must pick an artificial issue.)

“In that case we find ourselves faced with two completely contradictory propagandas. On one side is a propaganda powerful in media and techniques, but limited in its ends and modes of expression, a propaganda strictly integrated into a given social group, conformist and statist. On the other is a propaganda weak in regard to media and techniques, but excessive in its ends and expressions, a propaganda aimed against the existing order, against the State, against prevailing group standards.

“But one must never forget that the party with the majority mandate, which adjusts its propaganda to that mandate and even uses the mandate as a propaganda aim, is nevertheless also the creation of propaganda, which hands it that mandate in a given setting and for a long period of time.

“Finally, a last word on the financial problems and their implications: it is improbable that the contributions alone would enable a party to pay for the increasingly expensive propaganda media. The parties are therefore forced to look for aid either to capitalists — and thus indenture themselves to a financial oligarchy — or to a government (national or foreign). In the second case, the State comes close to appropriating the instruments. The State then lends them to those who ask for them, which is very democratic, and thus permits secondary parties to live; but this leads to an unstable situation, as I said earlier, and the State is then increasingly forced to exercise censorship over what is being said by means of these instruments. This censorship will be increasingly rigorous as the State itself is forced to make more propaganda.

“This leads us to examine the hypothesis of a State that ceases to be neutral in the ideological domain and assumes a doctrine or ideology of its own. At that moment, propaganda by the State is imposed on all parties. To be sure, we are still dealing with propaganda. We have seen in past decades with regard to all “state religions” that power must first be used to shape public opinion, without which they could not operate. Thus, at the beginnings of the Nazi State, or of popular democracies, a certain competition continued between the propaganda of the State and that of the parties out of power. But in such competition the State necessarily emerges victorious; it increasingly denies the use of the mass media of communication to the opposition parties; it works on public opinion until the moment arrives when it can simply suppress opposition parties without fear. But the State can work on public opinion only through the intermediary of a party. This is another effect of propaganda. One could conceive of a State that would suppress all parties and live by itself: that was the classic pattern of dictatorship. However, that is no longer possible.

“Once public opinion has been aroused and altered to political problems, it must be taken into consideration. The propaganda mechanism of the State cannot function as an administrative unit; it cannot have reality or efficiency except through the media of the State party. It is impossible to imagine that a modern State could command acceptance without working through a party establishing contact between those who govern and public opinion. The party’s fundamental role is to make propaganda for the government, i.e., the propaganda that the government wishes to e made. In one sense, incidentally, we find here the image of a party in its purest state, for ultimately every party is a propaganda machine. But this is much more hidden in other systems in which there still can be nuances and discussions; in dictatorships, the party no longer serves any ideological or political function, no longer expresses social interests, and so on. It is an organ designed to tame and train public opinion, and exists solely because of the State’s need. As soon as that need diminishes, the role and prestige of the party also diminish This happened in Nazi Germany in 1938 (after the concentration of all powers in the Fuhrer’s hands), and in the Soviet Union after the purges of 1936. But as soon as propaganda again becomes important the party resumes its role.

“Propaganda very clearly gives direction to the life of political parties imposes certain forms and rules on them sends them down certain paths, and ends up by deciding their life or death until the regime expands to the point at which propaganda and party are totally fused.”

My view is that there is no longer a possibility of reforming the state into a more tolerable form because, although it may have taken forms in the past that were tolerable, it has now been transformed by the agglomeration of techniques, especially propaganda, to the point where meaningful reform is no longer possible. The only option I see is to withdraw all moral support from the state and minimize interactions with it. It cannot be made to serve the interests of humanity and the rest of creation.