In the first part of this post I dismantled the consensus definition of propaganda, arguing that in part and in total “propaganda” is indistinguishable from any other form of political expression. The only obvious distinguishing aspect between the two definitions is the essential subjectivity of favoring political expression I agree with and opposing propaganda I do not agree with.
This being the case, propaganda needs to be redefined. I propose that propaganda be defined not as the product of a state’s political agenda but the control of the means of that agenda itself. In effect, propaganda is not what you see, but how you see it. States engage in propaganda as they seek to control and dominate communications between the government and the people as well as nations abroad as a tool to secure and extend their political power.
Joseph Goebbels, never a man anyone wishes to acknowledge, bluntly stated in a 1928 speech the true purpose of propaganda. The key phrase is variously translated as “the forerunner,” or “means,” of state control, but it is easy to see how the various uses of propaganda can be caught up in this definition: it helps parties achieve government control, maintains authoritarian political control, and aids those governments’ needs to control both the population and foreign adversaries. This was written before Hitler came to power but Goebbels’ emphasis on “seizing” and holding government power anticipates the totalitarian control they eventually exerted over all of Germany.
I recognize this is a departure from the conventional and academic definition of propaganda. That is entirely the point. In order both to recognize propaganda for what it truly is, and to protect legitimate political expression from repression, I must make the argument here that propaganda and legitimate political expression are opposites.
- All Political Speech Is Equal
This is a difficult point to argue primarily because the subjectivity of political expression is so deeply ingrained in most people. It is impossible to argue that the speech of, say, Donald Trump, and that of Bernie Sanders, are effectively equal. For all practical matters nobody would agree to this proposition. So in order to make this argument, I need to break political expression down to its essence, that of thesis and antithesis.
As an example I will use an extraordinary piece of artwork I saw once more than 15 years ago. During the Cold War a former Western European ambassador to the Soviet Union quietly collected the art made by prisoners of the Gulag. One older artist had made his living restoring Russian Orthodox Church icons several hundreds of years old. In his spare time he painted his own icons. One of those this ambassador purchased: at the center of a series of portraits of the saints of the orthodox church he painted Ronald Reagan.
The political meaning of this portrait could not be mistaken. The artist canonized the American president with the holiest figures in the history of the church. He risked his freedom or life to do so in a state that would treat this expression as a double heresy: an expression of faith in a power other than the Communist Party and the reification of the enemy of the Soviet Union. The thesis would be “Ronald Reagan is a saint.” The antithesis would be “Ronald Reagan is not a saint.” As political propositions both require the other, in which case they are essentially equal. It is impossible to argue the proposition without stating the fundamental basis of the argument and its opposite.
It can be argued that what separates this individual act of political expression from propaganda is the state in terms of both scale and legitimacy. Yet if we acknowledge the right or duty of the state to express, exert, or defend its authority or principles – in the event of war, disease, or national emergency – then there is no fundamental difference between the two. Even if we acknowledge state expression in the absence of a national emergency, we fall back on the thesis/antithesis dichotomy: the argument and its counterargument cannot exist in the public domain without each other.
2. Propaganda Is the Control of the Means of Political Expression
But it is within that dichotomy we find the essence of true propaganda: the elimination of the antithesis, an artificial state of affairs where no contradiction of a state-endorsed political statement may be contradicted. The only way to accomplish this, in practice, is for the state to control the means of political expression and enforce compliance with that expression. True propaganda cannot exist without both of these elements.
In this case we have multiple examples. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are defined as totalitarian because they controlled all aspects of individual life. Both exerted a “party line” that was brutally enforced by the police state. And yet, as the Holocaust Memorial’s catalogue of Nazi propaganda demonstrates, we are often distracted more by the product of that propaganda outlet than we are by the sheer ubiquity of it.
This control limits, in a concrete way, the public space for debate that Hannah Arendt outlines. Politics and political freedom are healthy when the town commons is open to all to debate, argue, find consensus, form alliances. The control of the means of political expression closes the commons, leaving behind only the state’s position with no method of counterargument. This is why I argue that propaganda and political expression are opposites: a closed commons against an open one, censorship countering creativity, conformism versus diversity.
3) Propaganda Is Coercive
As I noted in Part One, Nazi Germany’s control of the means of political expression was indeed totalitarianism: all church, universities, schools, radio, press, publishing, cinema, civic organizations, artistic and literary guilds, medicine, and sports were dominated by the government. The Soviet Union also controlled all these means while destroying the church, suppressing minority languages and religious faiths, limiting travel both domestically and internationally, turning family and community members into informants, exiling or executing dissidents, and blocking foreign communications into the Soviet Union.
This is not mere censorship. It is the active harnessing of the means of communication to broadcast a single political agenda. But the pervasiveness of this propaganda is only one part of the apparatus for complete political control. Both states combined total control with violent enforcement through a mammoth and powerful secret police. In practice, these states told the people what to think and brutally punished anyone who did not think as they were told. This is the essence of totalitarianism: they have more in common with the Thought Police than with the Office of Censorship.
The practice of total political control is often and mistakenly considered a fundamentally modern concept. It is argued that totalitarianism and the mass organization and violence required for it to survive would not be possible without the tools available only in the 20th century. This is not true: the aspect of totalitarian control of political expression has existed for hundreds of years. As in many cases, we strangely miss this fact hiding in plain sight. Most scholars of propaganda date the term to the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, established by the Roman Catholic Church in the late 16th century. The church established this office primarily to spread the Gospel among the newly discovered territories of the Americas but it was useful in the Counter-Reformation as well to oppose the spread of Lutheranism and other heretical ideas.
But what is regularly omitted from propaganda’s origin story is the Holy Inquisition. The inquisition was developed in the late medieval period but made notorious during the Spanish and Roman periods of the 16th century. The Spanish Inquisition imposed conversions on the Muslim and Jewish populations of the territories formerly ruled by the Andalus caliphate. The Roman Inquisition attacked political heretics like Galileo Galilei. The inquisition, then, acted as the enforcement mechanism of the church’s propaganda of the faith. Hitler and Stalin would have immediately recognized the control and enforcement of political expression as the essence of their rule. That essence is fundamentally coercive. The Inquisition and the Congregation together are the origin for totalitarian propaganda as we know it.
This is the “means of state control” discussed earlier. Totalitarian countries control the means of political expression primarily to maintain control the state itself and to achieve its political goals. The ramifications of this understanding are obvious: it is difficult if impossible to communicate opposition within a regime when all the means to communicate are controlled by the state. Today, authoritarian regimes use this kind of control, while short of being absolute, to dominate, distort, or close the political commons. This may feel like a very contemporary tool, but hey are building on a tradition that has dates back hundreds of years to the earliest modern states.