Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Dilemma of the Modern State

The rule of public opinion is regarded as a simple and natural fact. The government is regarded as a product of this opinion, from which it draws its strength. It expresses public opinion. To quote Napoleon's famous words: "Power is based on public opinion. What is a government not supported by opinion? Nothing?" Theoretically, democracy is political expression of mass opinion. Most people consider it simple to translate this opinion into action, and consider it legitimate that the government should bend to the popular will. Unfortunately, in reality all this is much less clear and not so simple. More and more we know, for example, that public opinion does not express itself at the polls and is a long way from expressing itself in political trends. We know, too, that 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 that this a highly doubtful proposition. And the bearer of public opinion is generally a mass man, psychologically speaking, which makes him quite unsuited to properly exercise his right of citizenship.

This leads us to the following consideration: On the 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. Such obeisance by the State to public opinion is impossible - first, because of the very nature of public opinion, and second, because of the nature of modern political activities.

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, that 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.

Aside from the near impossibility of simply following public opinion, the government has certain functions - particular those of a technical nature - entirely outside such opinion. With regard to an enterprise that involves billions and last for years, it is not a question of following opinion - either at its inception, when opinion has not yet crystallized, or later, when the enterprise has gone too far to turn back. In such matters as French oil policy in the Sahara or electrification in the Soviet Union, public opinion can play no role whatever. The same holds true even where enterprises are being nationalized, regardless of an apparent socialist opinion. In many instances, political decisions must be made to suit new problems emerging precisely from the new political configurations in our age, and such problems do not fit the stereotype and patterns of established public opinion. Nor can public opinion crystallize overnight - and the government cannot postpone actions and decisions until vague images and myths eventually coalesce into opinion. In the present world of politics, action must at all times be the forerunner of opinion. Even when public opinion is already formed, it can be disastrous to follow it. Recent studies have shown the catastrophic role of public opinion in matters of foreign policy. The masses are incapable of resolving conflict between morality and State policy, or of conceiving a long term foreign policy. They push the government towards a disastrous foreign policy, as in Franklin Roosevelt's policy towards the Soviet Union, or Johnson's push button policy. The greatest danger in connection with foreign policy is that of public opinion manifesting itself in the shape of crisis, in an explosion. Obviously, 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 policy it deems best. (polarized) But all at once, for a variety of reasons, opinion converges at one point, temperatures rise, men become excited and assert themselves (for example, on the question of German rearmament). And should this opinion be followed? To the same extent that opinion expresses itself sporadically, that it wells up in fits and starts, it runs counter to the necessary continuity of foreign policy and tends to overturn previous agreements and existing alliances. Because such opinion is intermitent and fragmentary, the government could not follow even if it wanted to.

Ergo: 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. The Gordian knot cannot be cut any other way. Of course, the political parties already have the role of adjusting public opinion to that of the government. Numerous studies have shown that often political parties do not agree that opinion, that the voters - and even party members - frequently do not know their parties doctrines, and that peopl belong to parties for reasons other than ideological ones. But the parties channel free-floating opinion into existing formulas, polarizing it on the opposites that do not necessarily correspond to the original tenets of such an opinion. Because parties are so rigid, because they deal with only a part of any question, and because they are purely politically motivated, they distort public opinion and prevent it from forming naturally. But even beyond party influence, which is already propaganda influence, government action exists in and by itself.

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, it dissemination leads necessarily to propaganda, particularly when the government is obliged to defend its own actions or 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. In France this situation arose in 1954, when the army used films and pamphlets to challenge the government's E.D.C. (European Defense Community) propaganda. But from the moment the soldier can vote, he is subjected to propaganda from outside groups and is himself a member of a pressure group - and what a group! The army itself is potentially a formidable pressure group, and the famous political malaise in France is partly owing to the efforts of successive governments to influence that group by psychological means, and to break it up. How can one deny to the government the right to do what all the other groups do? How can one demand of a modern State that it tolerate an independent group? Pleven's demand of 1954, to the effect that "there must be no propaganda in one direction or the other," is morally most satisfying, but purely theoretical and unrealistic. Moreover, he went on claim that what has been called propaganda was government dispensed information, pure and simple. In fact the two realities -information and propaganda are so little distinct from one another that what the enemy says is nothing but propaganda whereas what our side says is nothing but information.

But there is more: 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, to be 'with it.'" The writer Leo Hamon is of the opinion that this is the main task of political parties, unions, and associations. But it is not the whole answer. More direct and evocative action is needed to tie opinion, not just into anything, but to acts of political power. The American writer Bradford Westerfield has said: "In the United States, the government almost always conducts its foreign policies on its own initiative, but where the public is interested in a particular question, it can only proceed with apparent support of a substantial majority of the people." Westerfield stresses that time concessions must be made to the people, but "if the President really directs opinion, and if the public accepts the foreign policy of the government as a whole, no great concessions will have to be made to elicit the necessary support." Here we find confimation that any modern State, even a democratic one, is burdened with the task of acting through propaganda. It cannot act otherwise.

But the same analysis must be made from another point of departure. We have traced the dilemma of the modern State. Since the eighteenth century, the democratic movement has pronounced, and eventually impregnated the masses with, the idea of the legitimacy of power; and after a series of theories on that legitimacy of power we have now reached the famous theory of the sovereignty of the people. 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. The validity of this concept can be debated ad infinitum from theoretical point of view; one an examine it throughout history and ask it is what Rousseau had in mind. In any event, 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, and a government that fails to represent that will is an abdominal dictatorship. Each time the people speak their minds the government must go along; no other source of legitimacy exists. This is the fundamental image, the collective prejudice which has become a self evident belief and is no longer merely a doctrine or a rational theory. This belief has spread very rapidly in the past thirty years. We now find the unshakable and absolute belief in all Communist countries, and begin to see it even in Islamic countries, where it should be rather remote. The contagious force of such a formula seems to be inexhaustible.

Conversely, a government does not feel legitimate and cannot claim to be so unless it rests on the sovereignty of the people. Because of this mystical belief in the people's sovereignty, all dictators try to demonstrate that they are they 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 the doctrine was applied for the first time, it led to the emergence of the most stringent dictatorship - that of the Jacobins. Therefore, we can hardly complain when modern dictators talk about the sovereignty of the people.

Such is the force of this belief that no government can exist without satisfying 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 to claim they obtained their power from the people. This is even true of a Gomulka or a Rakosi: every plebiscite shows the famous result, which fluctuates between 99.1 and 99.9 percent of the votes. It is obvious to everybody, including those elected, that this is just for the sake of appearance, a "consultation" of the people without any significance - but it is equally obvious one cannot do without it. And ceremony must be repeated periodically to demonstrate that the legitimacy is still there, that the people are still in full accord with their representatives. The people lend themselves to all this; after all, it cannot be denied that the voters really vote, and that they vote in the desired way - the results are not faked. There is compliance.

Could it be that the people's sovereignty is actually something other than compliance? Might it be hoped that without any prior attempts at influencing the people, a true constitutional form could emerge from the people? Such a supposition is absurd. The only reality is to propose to the people something with which they agree. Up to now we have not seen a single example of people's not eventually complying with what was proposed to them. In a plebiscite or referendum the "ayes" always exceed the "nays." We see here once again the instrument used to influence the masses, the propaganda by which the government provides itself with legitimacy through public compliance.

This leads to two further considerations: First, compliance must be obtained, not just with the form of government but with all its important actions. As Drouin has aptly said, "nothing is more irritating to a people than to have the feeling of being directed by Mandarins who let their decisions fall from the height of their power." Thus the need to "inform" the people better. "That the decisions should be wise does not suffice; the reasons for them must be given. For an enterprise. . .to function well, it is best to take it apart in public without concealing its weaknesses, without hiding its cost. . .and to make clear the meaning of the sacrifices demanded of the people." But such information really aims at compliance and participation; it is, in other words, propaganda in the deepest sense. But we have become used to seeing our governments act this way.

In 1957, when the Soviet people were called upon to study and discuss Krushchev's Theses on Economic Reorganization we witnessed a truly remarkable operation. The underlying theme of it all was, of course, that everything is being decided by the people. How can the people then not be in agreement afterwards? How can they fail to comply completely with what they have decided in the first place? The Theses were submitted to the people first. Naturally, they were then explained in all the Party organizations, in the Komsomols, in the unions, in the local soviets, in the factories, and so on, by agitprop specialists. Then the discussions took place. Next, Pravda opened its columns to the public, and numerous citizens sent in comments, expressed their views, suggested amendments. After that, what happened? The entire government program, without the slightest modification, was passed by the Supreme Soviet. Even amendments presented and supported by individual deputies were rejected, and all the more these presented by individual citizens; for they were only individual (minority) opinions, and from the democratic (majority) point of view insignificant. But the people were given the immense satisfaction of having been consulted, of having been given a chance to debate, of having - so it seemed to them - their opinions solicited and weighed. This is the democratic appearance that no authoritarian government can do without.

Beyond that, such practices lead the government to embrace a method which derives logically from the principle of popular democracy, but which could develop only as a result of modern propaganda: the government is now in the habit of acting through the masses as intermediary in two ways. First, it goes to the people more and more frequently for the support of its policies. When a decision seems to meet with resistance or is not fully accepted, propaganda is addressed to the masses to set them in motion; the simple motion of the mass is enough to invest the decisions with validity: it is only an extension of the plebiscite. When the People's Democracy installed itself in Czechoslovakia after the police coup d'etat, gigantic meetings of the working population were held - well staged, well organized, and kindled - to demonstrate that the people were in full agreement. When Fidel Castro wanted to show that his power was based on democratic sentiment, he organized the Day of Justice, during which the whole population was called upon to sit in judgment of the past regime, , and to express its sentiments upon massive demonstrations. These demonstrations were meant to "legalize" the death sentences handed down by the State courts and thus give a "democratic sanction" to the judgments. In doing this, Castro won the people's profound allegiance by satisfying the need for revenge against the former regime and the thirst for blood. He tied the people to the government by the strongest bonds: the ritual crime. That Day of Justice (January 21, 1959) was undoubtedly a great propagandistic discovery. If it caused Castro some embarrassment abroad, it certainly was a great success at home. It should be noted that such provocation of popular action always serves to support governmental action. It is in no way spontaneous, and in no way expresses an intrinsic desire of the people: it merely expresses through a million throats of the crowd, the cry of governmental propaganda.

Second - and this is a subtler process - governmental propaganda suggests that public opinion demand this or that decision; it provokes the will of the people, who spontaneously would say nothing. But, once evoked, formed, and crystallized on a point, the will becomes the people's will; and whereas the government really acts on its own, it gives the impression of obeying public opinion - after first having built the public opinion. The point is to make the masses demand of the government what the government has already decided to do. If it follows this procedure, the government can no longer be called authoritarian, because the will of the people demands what is being done. In this fashion, when the German public opinion unanimously demanded the liberation of Czechoslovakia, the German government had no choice but to invade that country in obedience to the people. It yielded to opinion as soon as opinion - through propaganda - had become strong enough to appear to influence the government. Castro's Day of Justice was cut from the same cloth: it was prepared by an excellent propaganda campaign, and the people who had been aroused with great care then demand that their government carry out the acts of "justice." Thus the government did not merely obtain agreement for its acts, the people actually demanded from the government incisive punitive measures, and the popular government merely fulfilled that demand, which, of course, had been manufactured by government propaganda. This constant propaganda action, which makes the people demand what was decided beforehand and makes it appear as though the spontaneous, innermost desires of the people were being carried out by a democratic and benevolent government, best characterizes the presnt day "Mass Government" relationship. This system has been put to use in the U.S.S.R. particularly, and in this respect Nikita Khrushchev liberalized nothing - on the contrary. However, the emergence of this particular phenomena was predictable from the day when the principle of popular sovereignty began to take hold. From that point on, the development of propaganda cannot be regarded as a deviation or an accident.

Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes by Jacques Ellul