Jacques Ellul’s ‘Propaganda’, Crowd Psychology, And Black Media Trust

French Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul was a noted scholar of propaganda. In one of his most notable books, “Propaganda: The Formation Of Men’s Attitudes”, he composes a chapter detailing what he believes are proper conditions for propaganda to grow. In this chapter entitled, “The Conditions For The Existence Of Propaganda,” he cites two major pillars for propaganda to thrive and live. Namely, he presents us with one, “The Sociological Conditions”, and two, “Objective Conditions Of Total Propaganda”. We will deal with that former set of conditions within his framework here.

 

Within Ellul’s two pillared organization of those conditions necessary for propaganda, he writes regarding those sociological conditions:

 

For propaganda to succeed, a society must first have two complementary qualities: it must be both an individualist and mass society. These two qualities are often considered contradictory. It is believed that an individualist society, in which the individual is thought to have a higher value than the group, tends to destroy groups that limit the individual’s range of action, whereas a mass society negates the individual and reduces him to a cipher…an individualist society must be a mass society, because the first move toward liberation of the individual is to break up the small groups that are an organic fact of the entire society.

As soon as local organic groupings are reformed, society tends to cease being individualistic, and thereby to lose its mass character as well. What then occurs is the formation of organic groups of elite in what remains a mass society, but which rests on the framework of strongly structured and centralized political parties, unions, and so on. These organizations reach only an active minority, and the members of this minority cease to be individualistic by being integrated into such organic associations. From this perspective, individualistic society and mass society are two corollary aspects of the same reality. This corresponds to what we have said about the mass media: to perform a propagandistic function they must capture the individual and the mass at the same time.

“Propaganda: The Formation Of Men’s Attitudes”, Jacques Ellul, pg. 90-91

 

What I gathered here from Ellul’s is probably best articulated by use of a comparison. In identity politics, group identity is forged around what are defined as personal characteristics that are purportedly stigmatized and politicized at a group level. However, each identity as a political organ operates around a set of rules governing inclusion as well as hoisting up representative models as standard bearers. While our society is massive, it localizes not only in proximity but in group communication provided by mass media channels. Who we are is never as important as those groups that we claim to be represented by and affiliated with. In more specific, and possibly costly to me, terms: US Blacks hoist up individual success above group success and as an indicator of potential group success, while actually only being a very loosely associated group of individuals. It is easier to manipulate US Blacks to vote for a member of an elite class if that individual is seen as a representative of that group, not just an individual with personal interests and ambitions.

 

A group can hold an individual above that group’s interests if that group sees that individual also as giving that group some sort of representational value. LeBron James, while being only a basketball player, is hoisted as not only one of NBA’s greatest players but as a representational model of every citizen from Ohio. His success, while purely a consumer driving force in an entertainment market, is not seen in its sole profit motive lens, but in some gross savior/messiah ontology. This erodes any local criticism of James even at that level of politics, a space James has absolutely no expertise in. His connection to local bodies of people that claim him as a representative is distant and fictive outside of personal nostalgia for one’s nativity.

 

Ellul continues…

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The society that favors the development of propaganda must be a society maintaining itself but at the same time taking on a new structure, that of the mass society…

A mass society is a society with considerable population density in which local structures and organizations are weak, currents of opinion are strongly felt, men are grouped into large and influential collectives, the individual is part of these collectives, and a certain psychological unity exists. Mass society, moreover, is characterized by a certain uniformity of material life. Despite differences of environment, training, or situation, the men of a mass society have the same preoccupations, the same interest in technical matters, the same mythical beliefs, the same prejudices. The individuals making up the mass in the grip of propaganda may seem quite diversified, but they have enough in common for propaganda to act on them directly.

In contemporary society there actually is a close relation between mass and crowd. Because a mass society exists, crowds can gather frequently — that is, the individual constantly moves from one crowd to another, from a street crowd to a factory crowd, or a theater crowd, a subway crowd, a crowd gathered at a meeting. Conversely, the very fact of belonging to crowds turns the individual more and more into a mass man and thus modifies his very being. There is no question that man’s psychic being is modified by his belonging to a mass society; this modification takes place even if no propaganda appeal is made to the soul of the crowd or the spirit of the collective.

“Propaganda: The Formation Of Men’s Attitudes”, Jacques Ellul, pg 93-94

 

This individual produced by a mass society is more readily available, more credulous, more suggestible, more excitable. Under such conditions propaganda can develop best.

“Propaganda: The Formation Of Men’s Attitudes”, Jacques Ellul, pg. 94

 

Before I dig into Ellul’s extremely pregnant statements there, I need to clarify his sexism. Whether a literary device, a convention of his times, or intentional hierarchy construction based on sexes there, it does cloud what is truly an attention worthy insight. However, I will take liberties here and interpret his singular use of “man” and “he” in this above passage as referring to members both sexes, and all those in between. That being written, I agree. Much of our failure to avoid group thought, or hive mind, is because how much our society is saturated in group dynamics even when we seek to absolve our thinking from conformity.

 

Despite how it is worded, I value this insight that suggests there is an altering of our psychology under crowd and group based social objective conditions. Especially when I begin to apply it to my thoughts regarding US Black Media Trust. A framework that questions group obligations to individuals who are hoisted for exact same tendencies that caused that group’s oppression can only appreciate an examining of group pressure on individual mindsets.