For the American citizen, each new election season signals a new deluge of propaganda. The student of propaganda is conflicted during such times, because to him it is both stimulating and distressing. Stimulating, because each round brings new insights about his subject of interest; distressing, because these insights are terrible to behold.
For example, one observation is that public opinion apparently sees elections—each and every election—as an event that will usher in great and far-reaching social changes. Sometimes public opinion even seems to believe that this election will be cataclysmic, or at least epoch-making.
And yet, when I draw from my actual life experience, I know that I have never seen any changes occur before, during, or after an election that I would consider remotely close to “epoch-making.”
What this means, then, is that under the influence of propaganda the American public has only a tenuous connection with reality as it actually affects them, and that this “unrealism” is successfully induced and maintained over and over and over, without fail, every four years, by those who benefit from it.
So, as I said, stimulating but distressing.
As a distributist, I am required at these times to test my way of thinking. I am required to ask myself what sort of effect my economic philosophy would have on such an arrangement—whether it would cause it to worsen or whether it would offer a remedy.
The basic tenet of Distribustism is that a wide distribution of property would lend a new character to society; that it would necessarily help man provision his family more effectively, securely, and in a more human way. A consequence of this distribution would be that the centers of economic activity would become more localized and less abstract from the point of view of each economic participant. Distributists also hold that this would render citizens more potent politically and more fulfilled personally.
So I carried out this test, and although I had never considered it before, I recently realized that a distributist way of life would actually go a long way toward immunizing society against propaganda. This would be a completely unintended consequence, but a certain one. That is to say, Distributism necessarily erects barriers to propaganda.
To illustrate the point, let us consider the peasant society, not necessarily as it existed in the Middle Ages, but as it still exists in places like Central and South America. I use the term broadly, then, to refer to “village” communities of families who operate in a subsistence model economy rather than a commercial, industrial or monetary one.
Also, I do not intend to idealize a certain social arrangement in its totality—contemporary peasant life could certainly be improved—but simply to offer a counterpoint to the contemporary American wage-earner type of person who works in the commercialized, industrial context.
To begin with, we can say that peasant populations are nearly impossible to propagandize. That has been the opinion of every authority I have encountered, most notably Jacques Ellul, who in my opinion is the authority on propaganda. With this being the case, we need only ask why peasants are immune.
On its most basic level, the answer has to do with diversity vs. uniformity. The propagandist is a savvy manipulator who takes the pre-existing, static, and omnipresent ideas of a population and molds them to his own advantage. The good propagandist has a sense for the mental framework, myths, and prejudices of his audience. He works with what he knows he has to work with—he never sets about inserting new concepts from scratch. And he does not lie—he deals in partial truth, misinterpretation, and misplaced emphasis.
Thus, we can say that the ideal subject for propaganda technique will be the society whose members have all received the same level and type of education—those whose minds are all shaped in the same way and whose thought processes follow the same paths by way of the same ideas.
Coincidentally, this is why it is said that susceptibility to propaganda increases with one’s “education.” However, we need to examine this statement because on the surface it would suggest that education makes you stupid. It doesn’t. Only certain types of education—namely “schooling”—make you stupid.
We can prove this by observing that universal schooling and propaganda both grew up in the modern era, as siblings, and in some ways it is legitimate to say that modern schooling is itself a type of propaganda.
At any rate, suffice it to say that the products of modern educational systems are the perfect candidates for propaganda, mainly because they are mentally uniform. Manufactured on the model of the assembly line, they all conform to certain standards. Individual differences are eliminated wherever possible, and suppressed where elimination cannot be achieved.
Creative thought is a kind of anomaly, and although it is man’s most precious anomaly, it is anti-systematic and destructive to schooling. It is therefore minimized as much as possible, whether intended by the engineers of the process or not.
Thus, your average “graduate”—standardized, creatively inert, mentally rigid—is a god-send to the propagandists whose methods are more powerful insofar as they can assume mental homogeneity throughout their raw materials.
Enter the peasant.
I am not about to argue that ignorance is superior to knowledge, or that it is ignorance pure and simple that insulates the peasant from propaganda. That would be to throw the “educational baby” out with the bathwater. What I will say is that the kind of education received by a peasant child is more realistic, more fused to life, and more in-tune with the human condition; and that for this reason the peasant is much harder to fool, at least in the way that propaganda fools the educated mass of American citizens.
Moreover, the kind of education the peasant child receives will differ from village to village, drastically even, as necessitated by where the village is located, the way it makes its living, the customs of its community, and the dictates of its religion.
While American culture (and therefore American minds) can be replicated from city to city, it is virtually impossible to recreate a particular village culture anywhere else but within that village. Again, it is a question of organic culture vs. a synthetic culture—America has the latter.
Thus, while it is accurate to speak of an “American way of thinking,” it is absurd to speak of a “peasant way of thinking.” The peasant’s view of life and approach to life’s problems is as diverse as the number of villages in the world.
I hope it is clear, then, that we are not dealing with knowledge vs. ignorance so much as we are dealing with mental homogeneity vs. an organic knowledge of life which cannot be predicted or artificially manipulated. The latter is tethered to reality, while the former is not. And because it is not, it is liable to lose touch with reality altogether.
The difference between the two mentalities is best described by Milan Kundera here:
My grandmother, who lived in a Moravian village, still knew everything through her own experience: how bread is baked, how a house is built, how a pig is slaughtered and the meat smoked, what quilts are made of, what the priest and the schoolteacher think about the world; she met the whole village every day and knew how many murders were committed in the country over the last ten years; she had, so to speak, personal control over reality, and nobody could fool her by maintaining that Moravian agriculture was thriving when people at home had nothing to eat. My Paris neighbor spends his time at an office, where he sits for eight hours facing an office colleague, then he sits in his car and drives home, turns on the TV, and when the announcer informs him that in the latest public opinion poll the majority of Frenchmen voted their country the safest in Europe (I recently read such a report), he is overjoyed and opens a bottle of champagne without ever learning that three thefts and two murders were committed on his street that very day.1
At the root of the difference is an awareness of one’s situation. Kundera’s grandmother had the benefit of a concrete experience of her actions, both in their causes and effects, and no one could convince her that she was being affected in a way that she was not, or that she was affecting something that she had nothing to do with.
The contemporary citizen of an industrial society is in an entirely different situation. Profoundly disconnected from the greater part of what affects his life and work, he must imaginatively fabricate the causes and effects or, what is more common, have them imagined for him.
If he works on an assembly line, he does not know where the materials come from, what preparatory processes brought them to him, where they will go after they leave his station, who ordered them, or who will ultimately consume the product. And so, in the absence of a real understanding of all of this, he must accept the company’s interpretation of the meaning of his work—that is to say, the company’s propaganda.
The political involvement of the contemporary American citizen is analogous to this: he does not know the causes of the conflicts he is presented with—such as those in the Middle East; he knows next to nothing about the men who come forth with solutions; his participation is limited to a few hours per year, and these could be counted on one hand.
Such a man, overwhelmed, lost, floating between oceans of unknowns and yet confronted with complex problems of stupendous gravity, is the ideal candidate for propaganda.
Everything he needs, propaganda provides, and in fact nothing could satisfy his needs except propaganda. Nothing, that is, except a new approach to life which would allow him to exercise his understanding within a more modest, more comprehensible sphere of influence.
And that is what Distributism seeks. Distributism’s objective is to break down the centralized, impersonal structures that control economic activity and replace them with an economy characterized by diversity and scale, centered on actual human aptitudes and needs. Naturally, if this economic transformation were achieved, it would lead immediately to the dismantling of existing educational institutions in favor of something more like trade schools. And as everyone knows, trades tend to develop their very own “vernaculars” which are nearly incomprehensible to outsiders. Diversity is thus added to diversity, forming multiple layers of protection against the propagandist.
The propagandist—whether we are talking about the politician, the pundit, or the public relations man for a large corporation—can do nothing with such varied material. He depends for his work on a reliable set of ideas and words the meanings of which he can harness and manipulate. Take this away and he is powerless. A community with its own vernacular and its own customs is an impenetrable barrier—he would have to propagandize each one individually, which would be impossible.
If, inspired by E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, we moved from the megalopolis (the propagandist’s utopia) to the society of “Two Million Villages,” propaganda would suffocate and promptly die as men and women once again began breathing the fresh air of a cohesive reality.