As Edward Bernays saw it, a healthy democratic society required the regulation of the beliefs of the many by the work of an unseen few.
We live in an age of propaganda. We are saturated by it from advertising, intrusive technology, and the latest politically correct fashion. We also live in a time that requires us to make lots of distinctions to solve complex problems, which propaganda makes almost impossible.
Propaganda of course is nothing new. Plato’s struggle against the Sophists was a fight against propaganda. Eric Voegelin describes the opening scenes of Plato’s Gorgias as “war and battle” between the philosopher and the sophist over the younger generation. Yet, while all ages and people are tempted by what Josef Pieper calls the “abuse of language, abuse of power,” the French social philosopher Jacques Ellul argues that contemporary technological society makes propaganda more pervasive:
propaganda is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments, and to integrate the individual into a technological world… In the midst of increasing mechanization and technological organization, propaganda is simply the means used to prevent these things from being felt as too oppressive and to persuade man to submit with good grace.
The rise of what Edward Bernays politely called “public relations” firms along with the internet, cable news, social media, data collection, and efforts at behavior modification have made the conditions for propaganda even more favorable.
We like to define propaganda in a convenient way—limiting it, say, to Donald Trump’s twitter feed or whatever message we don’t like. The left will think of the alt-right and Fox News while the right will think of the mainstream media and gender ideology.
They all have a point. But even those of us who claim to be wary of state or other concentrations of power can easily ignore our own use of propaganda, or even justify it as necessary. As Ellul argues, every propagandist justifies his use of propaganda for good ends. The problem is, as Plato tried to tell us, propaganda is always bad for human beings and society. It makes us susceptible to ideology. Worse, it turns us into liars.
One of the challenges today is to make arguments that effect social and political change without resorting to propaganda. This is especially hard in the current climate when everybody’s doing it. I would like to propose three approaches to resist the effects of propaganda, and equally important, to resist the temptation to use it for our own ends.
First, we must be more assertive in addressing incoherencies in social sciences and politics, including those in our own assumptions. Second, we must be more philosophical and less ideological and reactionary, in our analysis of contemporary problems. Ideology, as opposed to philosophy, wants to fit everything into a simple theory. Third, we need to avoid the temptation “to build a brand” to promote our careers at the expense of truth.
Foundational Ideas Matter
The first approach involves explicitly addressing the foundational weaknesses that plague the sciences, culture, and politics. I am thinking, for instance, of exclusive reliance on empirical reason, the belief that secularism is neutral, or the quiet importation of a view of human nature as infinitely plastic. This has real-world implications. The falsehoods that permeate gender theory, for example, have had terrible effects on medical research and practice.
Granted, it is a risk to speak up in a political climate when to criticize gender ideology will be labelled bigotry. But if we do not address these and other foundational errors, then we remain stuck within a faulty box of assumptions, values and beliefs. The best we can do is tweak a broken model or end up, as Michael Anton put it, like the Washington Generals who get paid to show up and lose.
For instance, I was on a panel recently discussing how philanthropy can be empowering. My fellow panelists were all competent and interesting technical practitioners. My first reaction was to debate the technical problems of the dominant models of philanthropy. But I began to realize that all such debates didn’t really matter if our view of philanthropy is flawed. What do we mean by love and friendship? What is this person we are trying to help? For all the data-driven technical prowess of today’s philanthropy, its main problem is philosophical. It tends to have a reductionist idea of the person, and therefore stops at providing physical comfort. It is almost always materialist, radically individualistic, or sentimentally collectivist. In other words, it is misaligned with our lived experiences as persons embedded in culture.
At the heart of contemporary politics and the social and theoretical sciences is an empiricist rationality that is incoherent. This was a theme of Benedict XVI’s famous 2006 Regensburg Address. The current, dominant understanding of reason holds that for anything to be rational it must be empirically verifiable. Anything non-empirical is considered outside the realm of rationality. Proponents claim this is scientific and rigorous, but it is impossible to verify the claim empirically. It’s self-refuting.
More than that, such a position is anti-human. Limiting reason to the empirical places the most essential human aspects of life outside the realm of reason. Thus, justice is reduced to power or efficiency. Love, beauty, mercy, compassion, and friendship are seen as subjective, ephemeral feelings and are increasingly explained away through biology, chemistry and neurology or some “just so story” of evolutionary adaptation. We end up in a materialist hall of mirrors where, as Robert Spaeman described, “the arbiters of reality” want us to believe what we know is not the case. The problem is not too complex to understand. But in a propagandist’s world where every student is indoctrinated in relativism, scientism, and materialism, few have the resources to respond.
I am not suggesting a rejection of the social and physical sciences, or empirical studies. Let’s have more of them. But a broader concept of reason can only enhance them and could help inspire more human technological developments. For instance, David Gelernter is a world class computer scientist and artist who also rejects the analogy of man as machine. One need not accept incoherent rationality and materialism to think about natural science or to practice it with skill.
Jay Richards’ arguments about artificial intelligence and the economy in his book The Human Advantage is one example of addressing technology in light of foundational issues. Richards takes technology and the coming challenges seriously. One may agree or disagree with Richards’ analysis and conclusions. But he doesn’t simply accept the materialist view that a human person is no different than a lower animal or a machine, or the non-empirical anthropomorphic view of artificial intelligence as evolving consciousness.
There are some who may think foundational issues are pedantic or boring to regular people. Yet look at the popularity of people like Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Roger Scruton, and the major players in the Intellectual Dark Web. Fundamentals matter. Done poorly, they can ruin your intellect and your life. Done well, they can be a guide to clear thinking and a bulwark against propaganda.
Philosophical, not Ideological
The second element is to be more philosophical and to avoid the temptation toward knee-jerk, ideological responses, where all of reality has to fit into our preconceived categories.
I am not arguing for more “dialogue” which, in our day, generally means capitulation to the cocktail party or faculty-lounge pressure of leftist political fashion. Rather, I am suggesting a philosophical approach which recognizes complexity even at the expense of winning points in an argument.
Let me give a trite example. Where do left wing, anti-capitalist people go to find community? To highly unregulated free markets. We call them farmers markets. But ask an old-time conservative what they think about farmers markets and the answer will often be: a bunch of hippies and socialists.
Most farmers markets are minimally regulated free markets, where people can buy and sell as they like. And most of the farmers don’t receive subsidies. Many of them try to avoid the over use of chemicals and to utilize conservative means of farming. Conservatives should like them. But often we first react against them because the left likes them.
Here’s another, more serious example. I am reading Shoshanna Zuboff’s very long book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, in which she critiques companies like Google and Facebook. I agree with many parts of her critique. But early in the book Zuboff posits that one of the causes of “surveillance capitalism” is “Hayekian Neo-Liberalism.” I am not a Hayekian, but my first reaction was “oh brother, here we go again. It’s Hayek’s fault. And let me guess, Reagan and Thatcher’s too. It is the standard blame-the-market-for-our-problems critique.”
In one sense, my reaction was spot-on. Totally free markets are a myth. American and European economies are highly managed and regulated. OECD reports that tax rates relative to GDP are at the highest they have ever been. Here and in Western Europe, government spending averages around 40% of GDP. Reagan and Thatcher are dead and have been out of office for three decades.
But Zuboff is a serious person writing a serious book, so I tried to think about her argument. What is she trying to get at? In an age of data mining and the abuse of asymmetry of knowledge by some high tech firms, I came to see that she has a point—one that my gut reaction obscured.
Free market ideology detached from a humanistic culture is part of the problem. The existence of a market doesn’t legitimate an action. There are markets for lots of evil things from pornography to slaves to human organs, but this doesn’t justify the act of buying and selling. Markets must be subordinate to moral goods and integrated into a culture which takes moral truth seriously.
From this angle Zuboff’s critique of Hayek makes more sense. Give a broadly unregulated market like the tech sector to a group of people basted in moral relativism, Berkley Buddhism, radical autonomy, and mix in some techno-utopianism and then combine it with the worst version of Hayekian economics and his materialist, Darwinian philosophy: What do you get? Business and technology unhinged from any social or moral responsibility beyond profit, or any rich account of the good. You get, well, Facebook and Google: companies that steal your data, engage in behavior modification, lobby for special privileges, and talk about transparency while guarding their secrets and cooperating with a repressive Communist Chinese régime. You get “woke” capitalism.
Of course, it doesn’t follow that the solution is simply a more regulated market. Facebook and Google will only use the regulation to boost their power and privilege. We may need some regulation of the surveillance capitalists. But the issues are deeply philosophical and cultural and touch upon things that Zuboff may not see or be reticent to address because they contradict the fashionable views of elite academics: things like plastic anthropology and radical autonomy, especially in the areas of sex and identity.
But this is just what is needed to improve her analysis. If we do not address foundational cultural and moral issues, we get stuck in residual Marxian assumptions of economic determinism—the idea that if we change the economy, all the problems of modern life will go away! Here is where the first and second tasks I laid out overlap. To diagnose the manifold economic and cultural problems before us we must avoid the temptation to ideological, tribal responses and be more philosophical.
From a Theory to a Brand
Another way to resist propaganda is to avoid the temptation to build a brand at the expense of the truth. This is hard to do. We all want to be heard; to say something that people will latch on to. This is especially challenging in an age of social media where, as Tristan Harris puts it, everybody is in a race to “colonize the brain stem.”
To get our ideas across, we need to be rhetorically sophisticated and make big picture arguments that spark discussion. At same time, we need to avoid creating a narrative that is immune to correction. We can’t let our arguments turn into a brand, no matter how career-enhancing it may be.
I think an example of an important and in many ways valid argument that has slipped into a brand is Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. I agree with many of Deneen’s worries and critiques of liberalism and cultural critiques. I agree that Lockean individualism and the very idea of the state of nature is a serious problem. His critiques of John Stuart Mill and his echoes of Nisbet’s concerns about civil society are also important. I also think many of his worries about how the market can undermine true culture are valid.
Nonetheless, to suggest that the “liberalism” of Locke and the American Founders is the primary source of our social problems is simply wrong.
Yes, liberal notions of the person influence modern notions of liberation and autonomy. But to jump from Locke and the Founders to abortion, same-sex marriage and gender ideology is unserious. It’s unfair to the Founders, their religious commitments, and their respect for tradition. It doesn’t take seriously the writings of Washington and Adams and countless other Founders who argued that is “… it is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles of liberty upon which Freedom can securely stand.”
Deneen’s critique is also overly theoretical—a problem with many political scientists. It doesn’t take into account the actual practice and development of democratic life in the American colonies for over a century before the Declaration of Independence. The social contract of the Mayflower Compact was written seventy years before Locke wrote his Second Treatise on Civil Government. Social contracts and commercial society emerged in the Middle Ages, not modernity. Political life and the practice of republican and representative government cannot be reduced to a political theory course on Locke and liberalism.
Deneen not only fails to do justice to the founders. His explanation glosses over the influence of Marx, Darwin, and Freud; the Frankfurt School, philosophical materialism, radical feminism, technology, the sexual revolution; and the manifest failure of Christian churches to teach and live all the hard sayings of Christ for more than 60 years.
Machiavellian Means to Aristotelian Ends?
The real difficulty is when an analysis becomes a theory of everything and becomes immune to critique; when the narrative trumps the facts. Most troubling is that in the face of serious critique it appears as if the facts don’t really matter. Deneen’s argument has become a brand. It’s bold and attention grabbing. So why stop? Subtle argument doesn’t work in this culture anyway. We have to have a brand.
This may sound harsh, but Deneen basically told us this himself. In April 2019, he gave a lecture sponsored by First Things at Catholic University of America in which he argued that that we need to use “Machiavellian means to [achieve] Aristotelian ends.”
First, I don’t think it’s possible to attain Aristotelian ends with Machiavellian means—Machiavelli would consume Aristotle for lunch.
But careful readers will notice that Deneen gives us here an insight into what he is doing. The idea of using Machiavellian means to obtain Aristotelian ends helps makes sense of the book: It doesn’t matter whether his argument is correct. It doesn’t matter whether Locke and the Founders are actually to blame. It’s a “Machiavellian means” to attain his desired “Aristopopulist” end—an overturning of liberalism.
It’s a brand. But brands can destroy when they become propaganda and undermine truth.
American conservatism is in an uphill battle. The “long march through the institutions of culture” has taken place. Despite decades of conservative political victories, the culture has become increasingly dominated by progressives and radical secularists. This can feel overwhelming. But the road back must be through a recovery of reason and truth. It is precisely in this arena where our strength lies. Resistance to propaganda is difficult. We need to be rhetorically wise and clear and convincing in our analysis. But if we succumb to propaganda or Machiavellian methods, we undermine the humanity of our project.
This essay is adapted from an address to the Philadelphia Society on “Conservatism and the Future of Truth,” that was delivered in Chicago, Illinois on March 31, 2019