excerpts from the book


The Formation of Men's Attitudes

by Jacques Ellul

Vintage Books, 1973, paperback


Public and human relations ... seek to adapt the individual to a society... They serve to make him conform, which is the aim all propaganda.

In the midst of increasing mechanization and technological organization, propaganda is simply the means used to prevent these things from being felt as too oppressive and to persuade man to submit with good grace. When man will be fully adapted to this technological society, when he will end by obeying with enthusiasm, convinced of the excellence of what he is forced to do, the constraint of the organization will no longer be felt by him; the truth is, it will no longer be a constraint, and the police will have nothing to do. The civic and technological good will and the enthusiasm for the right social myths-both created by propaganda-will finally have solved the problem of man.

One must utilize the education of the young to condition them to what comes later. The schools and all methods of instruction are transformed under such conditions, with the child integrated into the conformist group in such a way that the individualist is tolerated not by the authorities but by his peers.

Propaganda must be continuous and lasting - continuous in that it must not leave any gaps, but must fill the citizen's whole day and all his days; lasting in that it must function over a very long period of time. Propaganda tends to make the individual live in a separate world; he must not have outside points of reference. He must not be allowed a moment of meditation or reflection in which to see himself vis-à-vis the propagandist, as happens when the propaganda is not continuous. At that moment the individual emerges from the grip of propaganda. Instead, successful propaganda will occupy every moment of the individual's life: through posters and loudspeakers when he is out walking, through radio and newspapers at home, through meetings and movies in the evening. The individual must not be allowed to recover, to collect himself, to remain untouched by propaganda during any relatively long period, for propaganda is not the touch of the magic wand. It is based on slow, constant impregnation. It creates convictions and compliance through imperceptible influences that are effective only by continuous repetition. It must create a complete environment for the Individual, one from which he never emerges. And to prevent him from finding external points of reference, it protects him by censoring everything that might come in from the outside.

Every modern state is expected to have a Ministry of Propaganda, whatever its actual name may be.

Effective propaganda can work only inside a group, principally inside a nation.

Popaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulations and incorporated in an organization.

Sociological propaganda in the United States is a natural result of the fundamental elements of American life. In the beginning, the United States had to unify a disparate population that came from all the countries of Europe and had diverse traditions and tendencies. A way of rapid assimilation had to be found; that was the great political problem of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. The solution was psychological standardization - that is, simply to use a way of life as the basis of unification and as an instrument of propaganda.

Mass production requires mass consumption, but there cannot be mast consumption without widespread identical views as to what the necessities of life are. One must sure that the market will react rapidly and massively to a given proposal or suggestion. One therefore needs fundamental psychological unity on which advertising can play with certainty when manipulating public opinion. And in order for public opinion to respond, it must be convinced of the excellence of all that is 'American." Thus conformity of life and conformity of thought are indissolubly linked.

Mass production requires mass consumption, but there cannot be mast consumption without widespread identical views as to what the necessities of life are... Thus conformity of life and conformity of thought are indissolubly linked.

Americans seek to define the American way of life, to make it conscious, explicit, theoretical, worthy.

To make the organization of propaganda possible, the media must be concentrated, the number of news agencies reduced, the press brought under single control, and radio and film monopolies established. The effect will be still greater if the various media are concentrated in the same hands. When a newspaper trust also extends its control over films and radio, propaganda can be directed at the masses and the individual can be caught in the wide net of media.

Only through concentration in a few hands of a large number of media can one attain a true orchestration, a continuity, and an application of scientific methods of influencing individuals.

The mass media really create their own public: the propagandist need no longer beat the drum and lead the parade in order to establish a following. This happens all by itself through the effects of the communication media-they have their own power of attraction and act on individuals in such a fashion as to transform them into a collective, a public, a mass.

In Western countries propaganda is particularly effective in the upper segment of the working class and in the middle classes.

Propaganda must concentrate on the densest mass - it must be organized for the enormous mass of individuals. This great majority is not found among the very rich or the very poor; propaganda therefore is made for those who have attained an average standard of living.

In Western countries propaganda addresses itself to the large average mass, which alone represents a real force. But ... in the very poor countries, such as India or the Arab nations, propaganda addressed to another mass, to the very poor.

All propagandists come from the upper middle class, whether Soviet, Nazi, Japanese, or American propagandists. The wealthy and very cultured class provides no propagandists because it is remote from the people and does not understand them well enough to influence them. The lower class does not furnish any because its members rarely have the means of educating themselves ... more important, they cannot stand back and look at their class with the perspective needed to devise symbols for it. Thus studies show that most propagandists are recruited from the middle class.

McCarthyism is no accident. It expresses, and at the same time exploits, a deep current in American opinion against all that is "un-American.' It deals less with opinions than with a way of life.

The creation of normalcy in our society can take one of two shapes. It can be the of the result of scientific, psycho-sociological analysis based on statistics - that is, the American type of normalcy. It can also be ideological and doctrinaire - that is, the Communist type. But the results are identical: such normalcy necessarily gives rise to propaganda that can reduce the individual to the pattern most useful to society.

People used to think that learning to read evidenced human progress; they still celebrate the decline of illiteracy as a great victory; they condemn countries with a large proportion of illiterates; they think that reading is a road to freedom. All this is debatable, for the important thing is not to be able to read, but to understand what one reads, to reflect on and judge what one reads. Outside of that, reading has no meaning.

The important thing is not to be able to read, but to understand what one reads, to reflect on and judge what one reads. Outside of that, reading has no meaning.

The vast majority of people, perhaps 90 percent, know how to read, but do not exercise their intelligence beyond this. They attribute authority and eminent value to the printed word, or, conversely, reject it altogether. As these people do not possess enough knowledge to reflect and discern, they believe - or disbelieve - in toto what they read. And as such people, moreover, will select the easiest, not the hardest, reading matter, they are precisely on the level at which the printed word can seize and convince them without opposition. They are perfectly adapted to propaganda.

The most obvious result of primary education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to make the individual susceptible to superpropaganda.

Propaganda techniques have advanced so much faster than the reasoning capacity of the . average man that to close this gap and shape this man intellectually outside the framework of propaganda is almost impossible.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Power is based on opinion. What is a government not supported by opinion? Nothing.

Public opinion is very unstable, fluctuating, never settled. Furthermore, this opinion is irrational and develops in unforeseeable fashion. It is by no means composed of a majority of rational decisions in the face of political problems, as some simplistic vision would have it. The majority vote is by no means the real public opinion. Its basically irrational character greatly reduces its power to rule in a democracy. Democracy is based on the concept that man is rational and capable of seeing clearly what is in his own interest, but the study of public opinion suggests this is a highly doubtful proposition.

On the one hand, the government can no longer operate outside the pressure of the masses and public opinion; on the other hand, public opinion does not express itself in the democratic form of government. To be sure, the government must know and constantly probe public opinion. The modern State must constantly undertake press and opinion surveys and sound out public opinion in a variety of other ways. But the fundamental question is: Does the State then obey and express and follow that opinion? Our unequivocal answer is that even in a democratic State it does not.

Public opinion is so variable and fluctuating that government could never base a course of action on it; no sooner would government begin to pursue certain aims favored in an opinion poll, an opinion would turn against it. To the degree that opinion changes are rapid, policy changes would have to be equally rapid; to the extent that opinion is irrational, political action would have to be equally irrational. And as public opinion, ultimately, is always "the opinion of incompetents," political decisions would therefore be surrendered to them.

The masses are incapable of resolving the conflict between morality and State policy, or of conceiving a long-term foreign policy... Public opinion knows little about foreign affairs and cares less; torn by contradictory desires, divided on principal questions, it permits the government to conduct whatever foreign policy it deems best.

Even in a democracy, a government that is honest, serious, benevolent and respects the voter cannot follow public opinion. But it cannot escape it either. The masses are there; they are interested in politics. The government cannot act without them. So what can it do?

Only one solution is possible: as the government cannot follow opinion. opinion must follow the government. One must convince this present, ponderous, impassioned mass that the government's decisions are legitimate and good and that its foreign policy is correct. The democratic State, precisely because it believes in the expression of public opinion and does not gag it, must channel and shape that opinion, if it wants to be realistic and not follow an ideological dream.

As the government cannot follow opinion. opinion must follow the government. One must convince this present, ponderous, impassioned mass that the government's decisions are legitimate and good and that its foreign policy is correct. The democratic State, precisely because it believes in the expression of public opinion and does not gag it, must channel and shape that opinion, if it wants to be realistic and not follow an ideological dream.

The most benevolent State will inform the people of what it does. For the government to explain how it acts, why it acts, and what the problems are, makes sense; but when dispensing such information, the government cannot remain coldly objective; it must plead its case, inevitably, if only to counteract opposing propaganda. Because information alone is ineffective, its dissemination leads necessarily to propaganda, particularly, when the government is obliged to defend its own actions or the life of the nation against private enterprise. The giant corporations and pressure groups, pushing their special interests, are resorting increasingly to psychological manipulation. Must the government permit this without reacting? And just because pure and simple information cannot prevail against modern propaganda techniques, the government, too, must act through propaganda.

The giant corporations and pressure groups, pushing their special interests, are resorting increasingly to psychological manipulation. Must the government permit this without reacting? And just because pure and simple information cannot prevail against modern propaganda techniques, the government, too, must act through propaganda.

In a democracy, the citizens must be tied to the decisions of the government. This is the great role propaganda must perform. It must give the people the feeling - which they crave and which satisfies them - to have wanted what the government is doing, to be responsible for its actions, to be involved in defending them and making them succeed.

Since the eighteenth century, the democratic movement has pronounced, and eventually impregnated the masses with, the idea of the legitimacy of power... Power is regarded as legitimate when it derives from the sovereignty of the people, rests on the popular will, expresses and follows this popular will... this rather abstract philosophic theory has become a well-developed and irrefutable idea in the mind of the average man.

For the average Westerner, the will of the people is sacred, ands government that fails to represent that will is an abominable dictatorship. Each time the people speak their minds the government must go along; no other source of legitimacy exists.

A government does not feel legitimate and cannot claim to be so unless it rests on this sovereignty of the people, unless it can prove that it expresses the will of the people; otherwise it would be thrown out immediately. Because of this mystical belief in the people's sovereignty, all dictators try to demonstrate that they are the expression of that sovereignty.

For a long time the theory of the people's sovereignty was believed to be tied to the concept of democracy. But it should be remembered that when that doctrine was applied for the first time, it led to the emergence of the most stringent dictatorship - that of the Jacobins [late-eighteenth century French Revolution]. Therefore, we can hardly complain when modem dictators talk about the sovereignty thy people.

Such is the force of this belief [in the people's sovereignty] that no government can exist without satisfying it or giving the appearance of sharing it. From this belief springs the necessity for dictators to have themselves elected by plebiscite. Hitler, Stalin, Tito, Mussolini were all able I to claim that they obtained their power from the people.

A modern State, even if it be liberal, democratic, and humanist, finds itself objectively and sociologically in a situation in which it must use propaganda as a means of governing.

[The masses] are interested in politics and consider themselves concerned with politics; even if they are not forced to participate actively because they live in a democracy, they embrace politics as soon as somebody wants to take the democratic regime away from them.

[The masses] are faced with choices and decisions which demand maturity, knowledge, and a range of information which they do not and cannot have. Elections are limited to the selection of individuals, which reduces the problem of participation to its simplest form. But the individual wishes to participate in other ways than just elections. He wants to be conversant with economic questions. In fact, his government asks him to be. He wants to form an opinion on foreign policy. But in reality he can't. He is caught between his desire and his inability, which he refuses to accept. For no citizen will believe that he is unable to have opinions. Public opinion surveys always reveal that people have opinions even on the most complicated questions, except for a small minority (usually the most informed and those who have reflected most). The majority prefers expressing stupidities to not expressing any opinion: this gives them the feeling of participation. For this they need simple thoughts, elementary explanations, a "key" that will permit them to take a position, and even ready-made opinions. As most people have the desire and at the same time the incapacity to participate, they are ready to accept a propaganda that will permit them to participate, and which hides their incapacity beneath explanations, judgments, and news, enabling them to satisfy their desire without eliminating their incompetence.

Whereas the slave worked only because he was forced to, modern man, who believes in his freedom and dignity, needs reasons and justifications to make himself work.

... Such dedication to work does not happen by itself or spontaneously. Its creation is properly the task of propaganda, which must give the individual psychological and ideological reasons why he needs to be where he is.

The modern citizen is asked to participate in wars such as have never been seen before. All men must prepare for war, and for a dreadful type of war at that - dreadful because of its duration, the immensity of its operations, its tremendous losses, and the atrocity of the means employed.

... Naturally, it was always necessary to give men ideological and sentimental motivations to get them to lay down their lives. But in our modern form of war the traditional motives - protection of one's family, defense of one's own country, personal hatred for known enemy - no longer exist.

... Man must be plunged into a mystical atmosphere, he must be given strong enough impulses as well as good enough reasons for his sacrifices, and, at the same time, a drug that will sustain his nerves and his morale. Patriotism must become "ideological." Only propaganda can put man into a state of nervous endurance that will permit him to face the tension of war.

If we look at the average man, and not at those few intellectuals whose special business it is to be informed, what do we actually mean when we say this man is informed? It means that, aside from spending eight hours at work and two more commuting, this man reads a newspaper or, more precisely, looks at the headlines and glances at a few stories. He may also listen to news broadcasts, or watch it on TV; and once a week he will look at the photos in a picture magazine. This is the case of the reasonably well informed man, that is, of 98 percent of all people.

The law of news is that it is a daily affair. Man can never stand back to get a broad view because he immediately receives a new batch of news, which supersedes the old and demands a new point of focus, for which our reader has no time. To the average man who tries to keep Informed, a world emerges that is astonishingly incoherent, absurd, and irrational, which changes rapidly and constantly for reasons he cannot understand. And as the most frequent news story is about an accident or a calamity, our reader takes a catastrophic view of the world around him.

Effective propaganda needs to give man an all-embracing view of the world, a view rather than a doctrine... Propaganda must furnish an explanation for all happenings, a key to understand the whys and the reasons for economic and political developments. News loses its frightening character when it offers information for which the listener already has a ready explanation in his mind, or for which he can easily find one. The great force of propaganda lies in giving modem man embracing, simple explanations and massive, doctrinal causes, without which he could not live with the news. Man is doubly reassured by propaganda: first, because it tells him the reasons behind the developments which unfold, and second, because it promises a solution for all the problems that arise, which would otherwise seem insoluble.

The man who lives in the Western world ... is the lonely man... and the larger the crowd in which he lives, the more isolated he is. Despite the pleasure he might derive from his solitude, he suffers deeply from it.

... That loneliness inside the crowd is perhaps the most terrible ordeal of modern man; that loneliness in which he can share nothing, talk to nobody, and expect nothing from anybody, leads to severe personality disturbances. For it, propaganda, encompassing Human Relations, is an incomparable remedy. It corresponds to the need to share, to be a member of a community, to lose oneself in a group, to embrace a collective ideology that will end loneliness. Propaganda is the true remedy for loneliness.

Propaganda ... will permit what was prohibited, such as hatred, which is a dangerous and destructive feeling and fought by society. But man always has a certain need to hate, just as he hides in his heart the urge to kill. Propaganda offers him an object of hatred, for all propaganda is aimed at an enemy.' And the hatred it offers him is not shameful, evil hatred that he must hide, but a legitimate hatred, which he can justly feel. Moreover, propaganda points out enemies that must be slain, transforming crime into a praiseworthy act... propaganda opens the door and allows him to kill the Jews, the bourgeois, the Communists, and so on, and such murder even becomes an achievement.

Propaganda displaces and liberates feelings of aggression by offering specific objects of hatred to the citizen.

Authoritarian regimes know that people held very firmly in hand need some decompression, some safety valves. The government offers these itself. This role is played by satirical journals attacking the authorities, yet tolerated by the dictator... They serve the function of giving the people the impression that they are free, and of singling out those about to be purged by the government as guilty of all that the people dislike. Thus these instruments of criticism serve to consolidate power and make people cling even more to the regime by providing artificial release of tendencies that the state must keep in check. In such situations, propaganda has an almost therapeutic and compensatory function.

Anxiety is perhaps the most widespread psychological trait in our society. Many studies indicate that fear is one of the strongest and most prevalent feelings in our society. Of course, man has good reasons to be afraid - of Communist subversion, revolution, Fascism, H-bombs, conflict between East and West, unemployment, sickness. On the one hand, the number of dangers is increasing and, because of the news media, man is more aware of them; on the other, religious beliefs, which allowed man to face fear, have disappeared almost entirely. Man is disarmed in the face of the perils threatening him, and is increasingly alarmed by these perils because he keeps reading about them... This largely explains why the dominant fears in our society are 'social" fears, tied to such collective and general phenomena as political situations.

An essential difference between fear and anxiety is that anxiety is a reaction disproportionate to the actual danger or a reaction to an imaginary danger.

Peace is worshipped in societies that prepare for war.

One of man greatest inner needs is to feel that he is right. This need takes several forms. First, man needs to be right in his own eyes. He must be able to assert that he is right, that he does what he should, that he is worthy of his own respect. Then, man needs to be right in the eyes of those around him, his family, his milieu, his ' co-workers, his friends, his country. Finally, he feels the need to belong to a group, which he considers right and which he can proclaim as just, noble, and good. But that righteousness is not absolute righteousness, true and authentic justice. What matters is not to be just, or to act just, or that the group to which one belongs is just - but to seem just, to find reasons for asserting that one is just, and to have reasons shared by one's audience.

This corresponds to man's refusal to see reality - his own reality first of all - as it is, for that would be intolerable; it also corresponds to his refusal to acknowledge that he may be wrong. Before himself and others, man is constantly pleading his own case and working to find good reasons for what he does or has done. Of course, the whole process is unconscious.

Such justification corresponds at least partly to what American psychologists call rationalization, i.e., the search for good reasons. But rationalization covers less territory than justification. Rationalization occurs when the individual is prey to the difficulties of social life. The collision with various groups and other individuals provokes tension, conflicts, frustrations, failures, and anxieties for which man has a low tolerance. He tries to avoid all this, but cannot. He therefore gives himself excuses and good reasons for -voiding the disagreeable consequences of such conflicts, or fabricates a conclusion, which explains his failure and gives it the appearance of success ("sour grapes"); or he justifies everything by creating a scapegoat, or justifies his conduct by showing that the other party is to blame (racial prejudice), and so forth. Clearly, the individual believes the reasons he gives, all the more so as these reasons are "good" to the extent that they are shared by a large number of people, if not by everybody. The individual who justifies himself is always scandalized if told that the reasons he gives for his conduct are false, that he has acted for other reasons, and that his explanations are only embroideries to make his conduct acceptable and to win praise for it.

This need seems abnormal. On the individual level, it is often considered pathological, because it shows a dissociation from the self. But in reality this judgment was discarded because of its moral implications, the process involved being nothing other than hypocrisy. It was then concluded that there is nothing pathological in this need-for two reasons. The first is the universality of the phenomenon. Practically everybody justifies himself all the time, to himself and to his group, and it is difficult to call a general attitude pathological. The second is the usefulness of the process: it is generally accepted nowadays that in his psychic life man automatically finds what is useful for him and permits him to exercise "economies." Justification is undeniably useful. Through justification man not only defends himself against tensions and anxieties, transforming failure into success, but also asserts his sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. Often a man true beliefs are revealed only through this channel.

Propaganda plays a completely idealistic role, by involving a man caught in the world of reality and making him live by anticipation in a world based on principle. From then on man no longer sees contradiction as a threat to himself or as a distortion of his personality: the contradiction, through propaganda, becomes an active source of conquest and combat. He is no longer alone when trying to solve his conflicts, but is plunged into a collective on the march, which is always "at the point" of solving all conflicts and leading man and his world to a satisfying monism. One is always at the point of finishing the war-in Algeria or Vietnam or the Congo, of overtaking the United States, of repelling the Communist threat, of eliminating all frustrations.

Propaganda eliminates anxieties stemming from irrational and disproportionate fears, for it gives man assurances equivalent to those formerly given him by religion. It offers him a simple and clear explanation of the world in which he lives-to be sure, a false explanation far removed from reality, but one that is obvious and satisfying. It hands him a key with which he can open all doors; there is no more mystery; everything can be explained, thanks to propaganda. It gives him special glasses through which he can look at present-day history and dearly understand what it means. It hands him a guide line with which he can recover the general line running through all incoherent events. Now the world ceases to be hostile and menacing. The propagandee experiences feelings of mastery over and lucidity toward this menacing and chaotic world, all the more because propaganda provides him with a solution for all threats and a posture to assume in the face of them.

Private propaganda, even more than governmental propaganda, is importantly linked to democracy. Historically, from the moment a democratic regime establishes itself, propaganda establishes itself alongside it under various forms. This is inevitable, as democracy depends on public opinion and competition between political parties. In order to come to power, parties make propaganda to gain voters.

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