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 Jacques Ellul - The Political Illusion

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PostSubject: Jacques Ellul - The Political Illusion   Fri 23 Oct 2009, 5:38 pm

An Introduction to the Political Illusion, a book by Jacques Ellul
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3894/is_199908/ai_n8869373

http://www.cumberlandbooks.com/jacquesellul.php

THE POLITICAL ILLUSION is the third of Jacques Ellul's books to be presented to the American public. The first, THE TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY, was essentially an overview of the conflict between technology and human freedom; the second, PROPAGANDA, showed how modern man, surrounded and seized by propaganda, more often than not surrenders himself to it only too willingly even in democracies, even if he is educated; this third volume, THE POLITICAL ILLUSION, examines modern man's passion-political affairs-and the role he plays in them and in the modern state....

And he concludes that all facets of political activity as we know it today are a kaleidoscope of interlocking illusions, the most basic of which are the illusion of popular participation, popular control, and popular problem-solving in the realm of politics.

The first great evil from which most other evils spring is politicization (the act of suffusing everything with politics and dragging it into the political arena). In our modern world, contrary to what was the rule in all previous ages, everything is politicized: men seek political solutions for everything, whether the problem be freedom or justice or peace or prosperity or happiness.

Anything not political does not arouse widespread interest; it is not accorded any independent existence in our politicized world.

As a result of this politicization of all aspects of life and of the orientation of all thought and energy toward politics, men increasingly turn to the state for a solution of their problems, though the state could not solve them if it tried. And everywhere in the world this increasing inclination to turn to the state leads to three evils:


  1. boundless inflation of the state's size and power;
  2. increasing dependence on it by the individual;
  3. decreasing control over it by the "people" who think they control it, whereas in reality they merely surrender all their powers to it.

This state, then, engages in politics. But even though the state ceaselessly talks through the mass media-through those who represent it, whether they are democratically elected or not-of noble things and cherished values, momentous decisions and great goals, essentially it deals with tinder. Two things limit all its political endeavors:


  1. on the one hand, politics inexorably follows certain patterns over which the politicians have absolutely no control-they do what they must;
  2. on the other, where a certain margin of freedom of action remains, they deal with ephemeral, basically unimportant things that are made to seem important for public consumption.

The political leaders merely manipulate the images among which modern man dwells. Whereas in the Middle Ages man had direct knowledge of the limited range of things that concerned him, he now lives in a world of images reflecting faraway places, people, and conditions brought to him as "information" by the mass media. This universe is not, Ellul says, a tissue of lies, "but it permits any and all interpretations and translations," and the graver the situation the more "managed" and "edited" will be the version fed to the public. The whole of these images is then translated by contemporary men into a view of the world....

In the second half of the book, Ellul arrives at what he considers the three essential aspects of the political illusion:



  1. The first concerns control of the state. Ellul rejects the idea that in a democracy as we know it "the people" control the state with their ballots. They do, he says, control to some extent who is on top of the pyramid, but that does not mean control of the state; the elected representatives have no way of controlling-or even thoroughly knowing the behemoth under them. To change those in office means to change nothing: these men inevitably are faced with le politique, which by Ellul's definition is either dealing with ephemeral matters or moving along "iron rails," for which reason they are not effective leaders. And in our technological age they are the creatures of the technical experts they employ.
  2. The second essential aspect of the political illusion is that of popular participation; if "the people" cannot control the state, do they not at least participate substantially in its doings? No, Ellul says. Just as their ballots cannot control the course of events, their organizations, such as parties or trade unions, do not channel popular desires so as to make them effective. The principal reason is that these organizations require men at the top who are professional politicians concerned with little else than the eternal struggle to attain and retain power against rivals in their own and all other camps. Those men are interested only in having the support of numbers, and the hopes and aspirations of the rank and file are filtered not up but out. Moreover, members of the rank and file in an organization, like the citizens in a state, are dependent upon the information fed them, and the party or union hierarchs are expert in managing information and in preventing all nonconforming forces from emerging.
  3. The third aspect of the political illusion is the eternal, illusory quest for "political solutions." This is the greatest pitfall of all. After peace or freedom, education or the living standard, or even the law has been advertised and accepted as a political problem, people demand political solutions. But there are no political solutions for these problems; in fact there are none even for genuine political problems. For while, say, arithmetical problems indeed have a solution, political problems have none; indeed Ellul's definition of a genuine political problem is that it consists of truly contradictory given facts, i.e., that it is insoluble in the precise meaning of that term. Political problems merely permit equitable settlements. Yet the technicians more and more present all political problems as solvable equations. And because we believe them, or the politicians who obey them, we expect la politique to find solutions for everything, and we therefore make it and the state the guardian and executor of all values which, as a result, wither away....

[Editor's Note: Despite this excellent analysis, ultimately Ellul rejects "depoliticization" or abandonment of the state. These excerpts were taken from the 1967 edition, The Political Illusion, published by Alfred A. Knopf (New York) and appear on pages vii-x.]


It is unfortunate that a third book, The Political Illusion, is no longer in print. Not only does it form a trilogy with The Technological Society and Propaganda, but it speaks to a matter about which many Christians seem to be very confused, namely the possibility of influencing society for the good through political means. Ellul explains not only that this is flat-out impossible, but that the political system is deliberately designed to create the illusion of control through participation so as to keep the average person engaged and thereby distracted from doing the simpler and less glamorous things that might actually make a difference. We encourage you to locate a used copy of this book.


To summarize, the illusions are:


  • That "the people" control the state in a democracy
  • Voting controls the course of events [changing those in office means to change nothing, as politicians simply deal with with ephemeral matters or work within constraints (i.e. "iron rails")]
  • "The people" participate substantially in the doings of the state
  • Organizations, such as parties or trade unions, channel popular desires [these organizations require men at the top who are professional politicians concerned with little else than the eternal struggle to attain and retain power against rivals in their own and all other camps. Therefore, these men are interested only in having the support of numbers, and the hopes and aspirations of the rank and file are filtered not up but out.]
  • Information provided to "the people" is relevant and pertinent [citizens in a state, are dependent upon the information fed them, and the state, party or union hierarchs are expert in managing information and in preventing all nonconforming forces from emerging.]
  • Politics provides real solutions ["the people" demand political solutions, but no political solutions exist for genuine political problems consists of truly contradictory facts that merely permit equitable settlements. Yet the technicians more and more present all political problems as solvable equations, and "the people" expect solutions for everything]


Last edited by IP on Wed 25 Nov 2009, 3:07 pm; edited 1 time in total
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PostSubject: Re: Jacques Ellul - The Political Illusion   Thu 12 Nov 2009, 2:17 am

This is the book that struck me as so relevant, and important, and valuable for members of RPF to read...the discussion probably would've ended up in HotTopics before you could say "Boo", though. It's interesting that it's as relevant today as when it was written, which was what? 40-odd years ago? Obviously this political-type beast has an ancient, eternal kind of nature--a long history of evil outcomes marks its progress.
Ellul himself is very much to my taste as an author; he's very knowledgeable, intelligent and charming. I guess very readable describes him best.

So, *thank you* a lot for recommending him, IP I'll be reading this one next, right after the Ellul book I'm reading now...

Cheers.
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