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Propaganda: a game worth understanding for serious awareness
14 Jun 2001
Those seriously interested in catching onto the games of unaccountable power need to understand what propaganda is. It is not "all communications" nor "all persuasion". Once you wade past the hype that grips thought control societies, you may finally see that there is good reason to why there is a negative connotation to the word, and how policy makers need to keep you, the stupid masses, on a "proper course" of topical non-understanding. Jaques Ellul, amongst others spoken of here, are MUST READS for anyone seeking to seriously understand the games played by those they've been taught to trust.
Those seriously interested in catching onto the games of unaccountable power need to understand what propaganda is. It is not "all communications" nor "all persuasion". Once you wade past the hype that grips thought control societies, you may finally see that there is good reason to why there is a negative connotation to the word, and how policy makers need to keep you, the stupid masses, on a "proper course" of topical non-understanding. Jaques Ellul, amongst others spoken of here, are MUST READS for anyone seeking to seriously understand the games played by those they've been taught to trust.
Boy, it sure is hard to come upon a definition of propaganda these days, even though everyone is constantly attacking each other by calling their communications "propaganda". The closest I've come to a definition was to combine Noam Chomsky and Jaques Ellul: Propaganda: the manipulation of emotionally-potent oversimplifications (re: "facts" without contexts, as well as traditionally "understood" methods used to whip up hysteria against foreign and domestic alleged "enemies"). Anyone got a better definition?

from J.Ellul's book, in the introduction, p.vii:
"Can wholesome propaganda be made for a wholesome cause? Can Democracy, Christianity, Humanism be propagated by modern propaganda techniques? Ellul traces the similarities among all propaganda efforts--Communitis, Nazi, Democratic. He thinks no one can use this intrinsically undemocratic weapon--or rather abandon himself to it--unscathed or without undergoing deep transformations in the process. He shows the inevitable, unwilled propaganda effects of which the 'good' propagandist is unaware, the 'fallout' from any major propaganda activity and all its pernicious consequences. Most pernicious of all: the process, once fully launched, tends to become irreversible."

from the article below:
"...the individual develops a psychological weakness that leaves he or she highly susceptible to propaganda and information, and therefore the most superficial aspect of a popular event or action could lead the individual to adopt a new attitude or opinion. This is the fragile basis on which [most people determine their] beliefs, and this is the nature of the system as an abundance of information bombards the public through thousands of media outlets on a daily basis."

Is All Really Quiet on the Western Front?

By Jason Netherton

The context in which we construct and perceive our reality can be seen as a permanent battlefield. This is the ever-changing landscape that determines the direction our societies will take at any given moment, and upon which the forces of economics and politics converge to shape our perceptions on the meaningful issues in our lives. This battlefield is always open to new ideas, and provides a malleable structure through which random forces of influence and persuasion can bend and mold the definitions of our existence. In the modern age, the victor upon the battlefield will undoubtedly reap what may be the grandest of all spoils: the ability to control the psychological and material direction of a great part of humanity. The tool of choice on this battlefield is information itself, and it is through this abstract concept of “information as a means of power” that I will attempt to elaborate upon some aspects of the larger political and economic contemporary world framework. More specifically, I want to examine information as a public commodity, and considering how it is treated as such, what happens when it is mediated and exported across the world.

When attempting to correlate the actions of the individual to the larger structure in which the individual operates, it is important to look at how the general context affects the actions of the individual. That is, the context in which the individual bases his or her decisions. Therein lies the spatial-temporal framework that must ultimately be adhered to at any given moment. I consider this the realm of Jaques Ellul, and his characteristics of propaganda are what to me comprise the soil of the aforementioned battlefield.

In “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes,” Jaques Ellul outlines the rules and characteristics of effective propaganda. Most specifically, Ellul sees a fundamental difference in the propaganda of the contemporary world, and the propaganda of the past (Ellul, 102-05). For only in today’s era of scientific mass communications can such precise, and all encompassing media reach the masses from the “one to the many,” and therefore provide the capability to influence mass opinion from a centralized location. Likewise, the modern gesellschaft structure breeds alienation among individuals, which contributes to the further softening of the population and leaves them ripe for the “answers” that various types of propaganda can provide (Ellul, 8-9).If the propaganda is properly disseminated, it will feed off of the emotions of the population instead of the ideas of the population, and therefore invoke action from the unconscious rather than from thought or analysis (Ellul,27-28).

From the contextual battlefield of propaganda rises the architecture, or the constructions that pump the inputs of information, media, technology and communication into our reality, thus giving it concrete form. I consider this architecture the area where Herbert Schiller resides, critiquing the monolithic, corporate realm from within the Western borders of its origin. Schiller’s analysis is essential to my belief that indeed there is inequality in our information structure, and perhaps even an “overequality,” as I as shall explore later.

In the text “Information Inequality,” Schiller unleashes a riveting critique of what he sees as the corporate domination of culture, and its ideological support for, and comfort within, the prevailing American social order (Schiller, 8). In recent history, Schiller cites the growth of power in the private sector, and the corresponding decrease of governmental authority, as hard evidence of the direction in which our representative democracy is headed ( Schiller, 43). The declining availability of public communications space is obvious in all sectors of society and economy, as corporate solutions are increasingly sought out for public problems. This, coupled with such recent trends as the globalization of the electronic highway, could possibly be heralding the dawn of what Schiller sees as an “ungovernable world.” In the worst case scenario, a widespread lack of accountability will result as the capability of all political formations (regional and national) to control or manage the escalating powers of corporate globalization are rendered ineffective (Schiller, 102).

Schiller’s corporate paranoia is very real, and in my view these corporate information purveyors are among the soldiers who fight on the battlefield for our attention. However, as we do look to the near future, the ultimate form that my proverbial “battlefield” will take as it spreads across the world is still uncertain, although the forces that are leading the campaign to spread it are quite evident: modernization and globalization. These are the twin forces that when coupled with free market capitalism tend to upset the order of things. John Tomlinson provides ample front line criticism on the modernity discourse in his text “Cultural Imperialism,” and like Schiller this work lends considerable supporting analysis to my understanding of information, and its role in our world. Not keeping with what he perceives to be the narrow focus of Schiller on corporations and media imperialism, Tomlinson has preferred to take the high road and focus instead on the more broad concept of modernity. Tomlinson does not see the spread of the culture of modernity as a necessary evil, and in fact to consider the spread of such modern characteristics as capitalism and mass communications as a form of domination is incorrect (Tomlinson, 173). The more focused analysis is one that looks at the effects that modernization has on a particular nation or culture as it is drawn into the heavier currents of globalization. As the world converges, cultures and nations seek what they alone perceive to be self-development and progression as they become more connected to the outside (Tomlinson, 141-44).

At this point I can draw a parallel among the three authors, who all grant much power to information and its ability to be manipulated and used for grander purposes. The concept of information as power, especially when it is manufactured as a commodity, has already taken great hold on the political economy of Western societies. Furthermore, the fluidity of information when coupled with free market capitalism has also given much force to globalization and in turn, modernity. Before examining the effects of information as a globalizing aspect of modernity, I will first examine and interpret its nature as part of Western, particularly American, society.

The overwhelming perception in the United States of information is that it is a liberalizing force, whereby everyone can have access to anything (within reason) and the economic limits and potentials are unending. The only exception is that information also has the potential to limit freedom when in the hands of the wrong people, such as an overly paranoid government. Otherwise, the general perception is that information represents choice, free will, diversity, and the ability of the consumer to decide among an impossible variety of goods and services what is necessary for that person’s life. The beauty of the market is reflected by its self-regulating nature, and therefore only what is best can prevail out of good old-fashioned competition. These assumptions are grounded in the belief that our system “works” for us, and furthermore, the legitimacy of the system itself is founded in the psychological climate that Ellul spoke of, where conditioned reflexes and myths are the result of our actions sometimes operating separately from our thoughts (Ellul, 31).

Although we are not zombies, vacuously wandering inside our shopping malls, blindly following some holy doctrine of consumption, we are sometimes capable of being directed into certain habits. Offe’s concept of structurally imposed needs perhaps has a place within this, as indeed the very nature of our system predicates certain degrees of consumption (Tomlinson, p133-34). Considering this, I see the environment in which we make our decisions to be as unequal as Schiller believes, and going further I even perceive an overabundance of information to the point of saturation. It is this overabundance of information that perpetuates the widespread passivity towards the more important aspects of democracy. The population is drowning in a virtual ocean of options the same way as if they were dying of thirst from information deprivation. The only difference is that an ocean of options gives off the perception of abundance and choice, but due to its excessive nature it loses all sense of general comprehension and organization. That which is meaningful, or useful information, is lost among the random 160 cable channels, the 10 million web sites, and the thousands who had not the finances to compete for our attention in the first place.

The end result of this information saturation is that the mass of individuals in society inevitably turn into the “current events man” detailed by Ellul (Ellul, 47). Ellul describes a spontaneous defensive reaction in the individual when he or she is faced with an abundance of information, or any inconsistencies within that information. The automatic response for that individual is to forget the preceding event, instead opting to surf along the surface of current events in an attempt to maintain understanding, however fragmented and inconsistent it may be (Ellul, 47). As Ellul further elaborates, the individual develops a psychological weakness that leaves he or she highly susceptible to propaganda and information, and therefore the most superficial aspect of a popular event or action could lead the individual to adopt a new attitude or opinion. This is the fragile basis on which much of the American population determines its beliefs, and this is the nature of the system as an abundance of information bombards the public through thousands of media outlets on a daily basis.

As Schiller asked in his book, how can there be such widespread acceptance of information media which inherently offers very little to sustain the public good? Perhaps our definition of the public good has been whittled down by the excessive individualism that such a competitive capitalist society as our creates, or the public good just is not something that concerns people, especially when the economy is booming. Nevertheless, when corporations increasingly have the power to set the national discourse, and wield influence over basic democratic activities such as elections, it would seem as though the public might eventually sense something wrong. Within the spectacle of American consumerist society there is undoubtedly a greater need for more socially necessary, and not “consumer” necessary, information.

To what extent is the corporate world capable of handling the social and public needs of a population? In a way America could be the litmus test, and the results look bleak as corporate ownership of communications media is consolidating, while the number of outlets for their product are growing. With continual mergers and acquisitions, the private sector is proceeding ahead with amazing force and faced with little threatening opposition. While Schiller laments the waning influence of government to reign in the corporate economic behemoths, the population awaits instructions on what to buy next, who to vote for, and how to be cool. This immediately says something about the context of our present reality, because what little social and public goods remain have been redefined themselves to fit our consumer culture. Public radio and television increasingly seek corporate “sponsors,” and even the public school systems in America are establishing plans to allow corporate advertising, all to make up for an ever dwindling supply of public funds. The market driven society has virtually erased such notions as “public good” and “public service” from the political agenda of the country, and very little room is left for non-market solutions to get people what they need.

As corporate influence grows in the American struggle for survival within the onslaught of modernity driven consumerism, so does governmental influence shrink. The government, always a potential source of repression in world history, seems to now be bowing out in favor of the economic interests of the private sector (Schiller, 55). Certainly, there will be no complete withdrawal of government, but with minimal regulatory or oversight power, the desires of the private sector will play an even greater part in determining the agenda of the nation. This appears to the individual to be a natural process, as he or she is constantly inundated with notions of progress, such as new technologies that make “life easier” and give meaning to otherwise fragmented and disillusioned lives. As corporations frantically fight to develop new ways to advertise and convince people to buy things they do not need, they are simultaneously buying up the communications sectors that were once publicly held (Schiller, 84).

This dark interpretation of our society is perhaps a little excessive in itself, but in truth I do literally interpret the larger debate as taking place upon a battlefield where the ultimate prize is the construction of social reality. Earlier, I mentioned that this battlefield was spreading across the globe, as the private interests in the Western world desperately want to share their ideal vision of unbridled free market capitalism with everyone. Under the divine name of globalization, the information driven, free market system has exploded out of its Western borders to seek new companions abroad. The exportation of what Tomlinson sees as a kind of a culture of modernity to the far corners of the globe from the West has obviously upset the social equilibrium of many nations. When considering how Ellul explained the nature of propaganda, I could understand how the nature of the free market system gained such unrivaled power over people’s perception of their reality. But when such concepts are placed within a new and very different social/cultural context, the ensuing disruption can cause things to just fall apart. The hope and promise represented by modernity to the developing nation conjures dreams of reclaiming dignity and self-reliance, and such a representation is a powerful force in its own right. Modernity offers something new, and seemingly “better.” From the outside looking in, a visual representation of prosperity, defined in Western terms, then becomes the same interpretation of the good life in other cultures and nations. Modernity then evolves into the state of political-economy that is admired and sought in a universal sense, and thus the first, symbolic step in the exportation of the Western structure has already occurred.

As the Western structure spreads further along the global frontier, it begins to confront resentment and uncertainty, which Tomlinson deals with accordingly in his “discourse” on cultural imperialism. I believe that “cultural imperialism” can be interpreted as a reaction, or response to the inhuman nature of free market economics. So-called “traditional” societies that all of a sudden must cope with the cold, capitalist individualism and terms of trade that are fundamentally not in their favor, seek concrete images to focus their frustration upon. Because of the difficulty of reacting to such an abstract and spatially fragmented concept as “cultural imperialism,” it becomes necessary for local groups to focus on the more obvious, imported forms that “imperialism” may take, such as media, values, and entertainment.

Tomlinson describes culture as the “context within which people give meaning to their actions and experiences, and make sense of their lives.” He then goes on to say that this definition is different from “those practices by which people manage to satisfy their material needs, called economic practices” (Tomlinson, 6-7). I believe these two explanations say a lot about the nature of the American culture, because I think that in America they have become one in the same. It is quite hard today in America to separate economic practices from the context within which people give meaning to their lives. If I was to adopt Ellul’s perspective, this is the nature of the “myth” by which we construct our lives. We have successfully merged our economic practices with the cultural context through which we make sense of our lives. Therefore, it perhaps is no wonder that some in the world become upset at us when we insist on exporting these seemingly benign “economic practices.”

The curious aspect of the larger discourse on modernity is that its successes are always highlighted, and the promise that modernization brings with it is always seen as a necessary attainment to many cultures. The extra baggage, consisting of the values and habits of the capitalist consumer culture, tend to shake things up when they arrive at the doorstep of local cultural institutions that perhaps need to be reconfigured for capitalist modernity (Tomlinson, 107). Therefore, unless a nation or culture has a predisposition towards maintaining its present level of development, or simply wishes to proceed along its own charted course to modernity, the attractions of the free market system may seem hard to resist.

In bringing the discourse back to the battlefield, it is obvious that the conflict is far from finished. The political-economic structure that is taking shape globally is still in its infancy, and the tools of international communication that are used in the globalization process are also changing with extreme rapidity. If we believe that the conflict is settled in the West, and our mindsets are now irreversibly in tune with the corporate free market agenda, then we can settle into our cozy homes and watch the drama unfold across the rest of the world live via satellite. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will enter the battlefield and attempt to grapple with the same conflicts and decisions that America did.

Ellul, Jaques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. New York: Random House, 1973.

Schiller, Herbert I. Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in America. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Tomlinson, John. Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992
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