American democracy

Institutions vs. people

The hundreds of US State Department cables released so far by WikiLeaks and its newspaper partners reveal a world in which power factions work for their own good rather than for the common good. Each state seeks to strengthen its hand against other states. None of them has any qualms about acting against the interests of their citizens or humanity as a whole.

Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us. — Leo Tolstoy

The state is an institution whose purpose is to violate rights in order to secure benefits to a privileged class. — Wendy McElroy

The modern state no longer has anything but rights; it does not recognize duties anymore. — Georges Bernanos

A state is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies also; and this lie creeps from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” It is a lie! Creators were they who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. Destroyers are they who lay snares for many, and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

So the US bargains with other states to strengthen its position vis-à-vis those states. It is willing to prop up tyrannies that it finds useful employ any means to defend and increase its power. This has always been apparent to the conscientious observer, but it is valuable to have it now in fuller view of the public.

But as Jacques Ellul said: “What seems to be one of the disasters of our time is that we all appear to agree that the nation-state is the norm. … Whether the state be Marxist or capitalist, it makes no difference. The dominant ideology is that of sovereignty.” So I’ll turn momentarily from repudiating the state and look beyond the content of the cables to speak in terms that may be more pertinent to those who prefer to focus on improving the state.

Ethical vs. utilitarian

I think that the greatest significance of the recent controversy surrounding Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks (BMWL) is how it seems to illuminate the respective weights given to the ethical and the utilitarian in an individual’s worldview.

People who give precedence to the ethical are confident in ideals such as truth, freedom, and justice. They appreciate the good that can come from the publication of this material. Most can also acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns that should be contemplated and debated. But whatever their views in that respect, they can see that prosecuting WikiLeaks or Julian Assange for espionage or the like is a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.

In contrast, those who subordinate ethics to utilitarianism seem to idolize power. They refuse to make value judgments about constituted authority and its actions. They seem compelled to defend that authority without considering the reasons for opposition or the implications of the means employed to quash opposition and the various possible outcomes of the conflict. This is the seed of authoritarianism, which Glenn Greenwald recently identified as “an instinctively servile loyalty to power even when it is acting corruptly, lawlessly, and destructively.” And the intensity of an attack on BMWL seems to indicate the degree to which the attacker is in thrall to power.

Brittle authoritarianism vs. authoritative strength

But those in the ethical camp need not discard utilitarianism, and it is the utilitarian perspective that leads to recognition that it is impossible to eliminate vulnerability. This leads to decisions about which vulnerabilities to accept based on ideals and priorities. And this maximizes strength without focusing on strength as the ultimate end.

In contrast, a strictly utilitarian perspective leads one at every moment to maximize short-term strength above all else. This self-inflicted myopia serves only to reduce strength in the long term.

I believe that an individual who does the hard work of living ethically is more likely to attain true happiness in the end than an unethical person is. Likewise, a nation whose people conduct politics ethically grows stronger than nations whose politics are rigidly utilitarian. Neither happiness for the individual nor strength for the nation can be attained through direct pursuit.

Democracy vs. plutocracy

And so I turn back to the US, where so many people believe that democracy “impresses its character on everything it touches” and that “nothing can touch democracy” (see my post of 10 December regarding Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes).

Despite mythology about the US being a place of freedom and democracy, the country has always been haunted by authoritarianism and plutocracy. I associate this with the failure to combine independence for the nation with manumission for individuals. The issue goes far beyond the struggles of African-Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, etc. Successive generations in the US have faced iterations of the abominable choice between living on one’s knees or dying on one’s feet (¡viva Zapata!). Kent State and Watergate, McCarthyism, WWII concentration camps (in the US), Hooverville, the Espionage Act of 1917, and continual labor struggles (e.g., the Ludlow massacre, the Pullman strike, the Haymarket affair, and so on). Even Lincoln, virtual patron saint Americana, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War.

But each time that authoritarianism ascended, people rebelled and turned it back before a point of no return was reached. Likewise, we must now reassert the ideals that Americans have long claimed their nation embodies and defends — starting with freedom and openness:

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. — James Madison

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. — Thomas Jefferson

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech. — Benjamin Franklin

Who are we now?

There are real threats to freedom and security. But the threat is not just from terrorists; the state itself is a threat when it operates in secrecy and without accountability. Bradley Manning and fellow leakers and a free press (which includes WikiLeaks) are not threats to freedom or security.

We must oppose injustice without perpetrating injustice. This means that sometimes determined enemies will succeed in their attacks. We need to have the courage of our convictions and a tolerance for opposition. Adhering to our convictions must take precedence over prevailing against evil. And contravening our convictions equates to surrendering to evil and becoming complicit with it in the end.

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.


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.

Hope and dissent

“The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words? He is the one I would like to talk to.” — Zhuangzi (庄子)

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein

The words of this blog should be transparent and forgettable — disposable conveyors of durable concepts, paradigms, and paradoxes. I expect to write often about Christianity and sometimes about current events. I may also write occasionally about philosophy, music, science and who knows what else.

In any case, I am not a technician or specialist of any sort, and I hope this blog will have a nomothetic character. The following are the primary ideas and ideals that are likely to be reflected in this blog.

I value freedom and with it truth, neither of which can subsist without the other. In addition to these two things, I will address fear (often in the specific context of the culture and politics of the US, but elsewhere as well) since it seems to have an inverse correlation with freedom and, perhaps to a lesser extent, with truth.

I value equality. Dignity resides within every person, and human relations must be based on that equality.

Partly because of this, I loathe chauvinism in all its forms. Fear and ignorance seem to birth and sustain chauvinism, which stands opposed to truth and freedom. Chauvinism implies and even requires hierarchy, which institutionalizes and legitimizes inequality. Which brings me to my opposition to the modern state.

Anarchy is a touchstone by which I assess affairs of the world and their value. I do not consider anarchy a goal to be obtained or an ideology by which to be guided. So I do not consider myself an anarchist and am not one in any conventional sense of the word. However, I can sympathize to some degree with anarchists and probably share more in common with them than with any other group on the political spectrum — except perhaps libertarians, depending on how you choose to define and distinguish between anarchist and libertarian. My guiding principle in this area is that I have power over no one’s rights and liberties, and no one over mine.

On a tangentially related note, I am interested in the concept of the technological society as explored by Jacques Ellul. I am concerned with the encroachment on the individual implied by the proliferation of technique, and specifically the perpetual expansion of the modern state through the agglomeration of techniques.

Propaganda is one nexus of techniques that particularly interests me, and I will probably write a fair amount about the struggle required of the individual to maintain a personal, spiritual identity against the onslaught of techniques that would reduce him or her to an anonymous automaton in the abyss of mass society. I hope to write occasionally about the myth of progress, which is particularly important to contemporary propaganda.

I am a Christian — or, perhaps more accurately, am trying to become one more fully — and my favorite principle in Christian theology is that of regeneration/renewal (the Greek: παλιγγενεσία — palingenesia).

I want to see justice done and to see mercy granted. The paradox of justice and mercy in Christianity is one that I find particularly difficult to come to terms with.

And paradox is something that I appreciate. Not all paradoxes, but those that seem to contain a glimpse of truth with a capital T. And it seems to me that all truth involves paradox.

Last, I appreciate dissent. The jeremiad in the name of this blog is a reference to my given name and to one of my favorite verses in one of my favorite books of the Bible, Jeremiah 15:10, in which the author identifies himself as a man of strife and dissension. Jeremiah is alternately characterized as a weeping prophet; a prophet of doom, destruction, and judgment; and a plagiarizing prophet (because he quotes many other prophets). These characterizations are apt, but he also sounds a note of hope. Likewise, I seek to express views that are critical of the present world but that also point out reasons for hope, which paves the way to joy — thus the merry in front of jeremiad.

As I opened this entry with two quotes, so I close it with two:

“In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” — Georges Bernanos

“Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterward.” — Georges Bernanos