On propaganda, rituals and the pandemic
(originally written sometime in April 2021)
Propaganda is ubiquitous. It’s really the air we breathe. One of the most important insights shared by 20th century social critics of various stripes such as Jacques Ellul, Louis Althusser or the Frankfurt School gang, was precisely that industrial mass society cannot function without propaganda. At all.
Althusser’s analysis was probably the most clear-cut. His take was that our complex technological society with its demand for specialization and hierarchical organization, and the class-based tensions which inevitably arise out of this, must establish and continously recreate the necessary relations of production. In essence, we need something in place to make sure that I go to work every day and perform as a specialist and good consumer in our growth economy. We can’t have someone going around organizing production locally to share the work and proceeds with no regard for capital accumulation. And we absolutely cannot have someone doing anything ”anti-social” that parasites upon or directly challenges the existing property relations.
And while I perform my duties, we also need to make sure that I’m clothed, fed and taken care of by everybody else in the supply chain below. They can’t be unduly independent or disaffected, because then they will throw too many wrenches into the gears.
The thing which society uses to bring all this about, Althusser called ”ideological state apparatuses”. This basically refers to any institution that tells you such things as who you are, what the world is like, what you’re supposed to do in it, and how you do this. The media, the education system, and what’s today known as the NGO sector are prominent examples, but really, anything that inculcates you with the preferred set of identities and the dominant worldview and thereby keeps you doing your part in the machine belongs in this category. The ISAs then function as form of non-violent coercion designed to support the social order and its power structure.
What Althusser’s model didn’t really illustrate, and which e.g. Jacques Ellul and Guy Debord described in much greater detail, was the thorough permeation of modern society by propaganda. What we’re dealing with, they argued, aren’t really just discrete social institutions disseminating ideology, but a complete network of worldview and identity production that involves the entire social reality. The culture of technological mass society, they claimed, inevitably is composed in such a way as to reflect and recreate the relations of production. Everything therein is to some extent utilized towards the formation of our attitudes and shaping the roles we identify with. Modes of communication, the technological structures, social trends, customs. Even the ways we eat, dress or sleep. But of central importance, Ellul argued, is the deep-seated symbolic structure and the core bodies of myth and narratives that are actualized in propaganda, and which the dominant worldview builds upon. To this, I would also add the rites and rituals by which we internalize the ideology and propaganda, and find our identities in them.
Myths and rites
Myths are really commonplace and familiar things. We just don’t call them that today. ”Myth” in common parlance basically refers to falsehoods, or primitive religious people’s erroneous explanations of the world around us.
But myths can be historically true or entirely fictitious. That’s not the important thing. Myths are stories packed with the key symbols of our society, and which orient us in relation to each other and the world. They change very slowly, and are almost impossible to entirely replace. To the ancient Greeks, the heroes and legends of gods and demigods instructed them in who they were, what the society valued, and what they themselves could and should aspire to. Secular Westerners have the narratives of technological and social progress, civilization’s expansion and the struggle for liberty, encapsulated in everything from the tale of Galileo’s clash with the ostensibly reactionary Church to Darwin’s diary of the Beagle journey, Jules Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires or Star Wars.
Core myths of the modern West are those of science, progress and democracy, and their various corrolaries. This doesn’t mean that something like science is ”just a myth”. It means that whatever else science is, it also functions as a myth, that the set of narratives we have telling us about science have an important cohesive role in our society and orient us in the world in a crucial way.
Since myths provide the foundation of our worldview, they’re indispensible for all ideology production. Myths provide its groundwork and symbolic anchoring, and cannot be directly contradicted by propaganda if it is to be effective, since they establish the basics of what’s true and good and beautiful in our world.
Rituals, then, uses symbols and performative acts to manifest these myths and make them tangible within the context of our lives. They enable us to directly experience myth. Rituals naturally exist in all human societies and connect with the deeper levels of the human psyche. They normally facilitate relationships and social cohesion, and allow us to internalize the values, worldviews and ways of life of our society. They are thus often exploited as a core component of propaganda since they create attachments to the myths and any associated narratives. There are many examples of them in the modern context, such as passing the driving exam or graduating high school, but in technological mass society, rituals often involve consumption, brand products, and collective media experiences. We vicariously participate in rituals via e.g. televised sports, crime drama or sitcoms. Celebrities are also central in this equation, due to their implicit authority and trustworthiness.
In ”primitive” cultures, this symbolic enactment of myth in order to produce effects in terms of people’s perceptions and consciousness, is known as magic. The purpose of magic in e.g. traditional Aboriginal society, is to influence mental phenomena, especially of the deeper, non-rational sort that are important in uncertain situations where expectations and mindset can play a large role. Just like a placebo treatment, a pre-hunting ritual will actually improve the outcome of the hunt to some degree – but these things obviously cannot miraculously create anything out of thin air.
However, the influence of symbols and rituals upon mental states can be quite significant. Psychosomatic phenomena such as the placebo effect are well-known, empirically established facts. But so is the nocebo effect, and even the detrimental effects of curses, which in certain contexts and with the appropriate set of beliefs in the recipient, can cause severe physical symptoms.
All the same, the effects upon emotions, affections and convictions of the non-rational sort that can be brought about by the manipulation of symbols in the right type of setting are positively immense. They are much more profound than the modest impact such causes indirectly can have on the body, particularly when we’re dealing with crowds. Ad-men and dictators alike know this all too well. Adolf Hitler’s regime is probably the best example of the full potential of ritual and myth when creatively unleashed on the political stage. With the aid of the new mass media flooding the nation with symbols, incantation and ceremony, an economically debilitated nation whose institutions had little legitimacy, rife with political and sectarian conflict, was effectively transformed into an unrivalled war machine in just a handful of years. Central to the modern totalitarian society is precisely the use of ritual integrated with myth and propaganda, all facilitated by mass media. It wasn’t just for kicks that Himmler sent archaeologists all over the world to devise the prodigious history of the ”Aryan people”. Yet these forms of non-violent coercion are a significant feature of any industrial mass society for the reasons outlined above, and this past year, authoritarian forms of ritualized propaganda have become increasingly prominent.
Covid, ritual and governance
Indeed, with the above in mind, the Covid spectacle taken as a whole is probably the greatest collective ritual event throughout history. Amplifying the impact of an actual virus (whose severity according to a number of studies probably isn’t very much worse than the flu), the global mass media has broadcast doom and horror at an hitherto unprecedented level, enabling the entire population of industrial society to collectively experience an existential threat which otherwise would be absent to most people. A wise man from a tribe like the Nuer or the Aché watching all of this at a distance, would conclude that we’ve all been exposed to the modern equivalent of a curse or a hex, where the predominant authorities among our scientific and medical priesthood have proclaimed this great unseen blight which might devastate us unless we adhere to these precise rituals.
”I wear a mask because I love you.”
If one recalls that successful experiments eliciting the nocebo effect utilizes such modest means as a social situation played out over an afternoon, the conclusion that fourteen months of horror porn can actually have an impact, especially among the vulnerable, isn’t really that far-fetched. The fear sets in deep, because our foremost authorities, the bearers of the symbolic power and secret knowledge upon which our civilization rests, have collectively (or so the media says) sanctioned all of this. It’s extremely difficult to maintain an independent position in this sort of environment, exposed to narratives of this kind and with such an anchoring. To even entertain heretical ideas becomes almost instinctively distressing – we’re after all an animal for whom real social ostracization often meant death until just recently.
And moreover, very few people are really motivated to do so. In many ways, the entire spectacle is an exciting, validating and meaningful experience, particularly in a situation where social cohesion and a sense of common purpose already were quite lacking. In the artificial digital isolation which ensued, the covid narrative which actualizes the core myth of a glorious common struggle for social and technological progress against the various forces of darkness, becomes a very attractive prospect, and with little actual competition.
As such, the covid ceremony satisfies deeply feelt needs of the human psyche, and facilitates reattachment in a relatively fractured social situation where trust in the established institutions had indeed been waning for some time. Its usefulness as a tool of governance can hardly be overstated.
Another way in which the covid spectacle indirectly furthers social cohesion is by creating the need for purification. Ritual cleanliness in a variety of forms is also a human universal, and relates closely to innate behaviours which likely exist to minimize the impact of infections and disease, equivalents of which can also be seen in many other animal species. An infectious, curse-like contamination whose menace is constantly reproduced in every media outlet will inevitably excite these behavioural patterns in a vast number of people. Children washing their hands raw to soothe their anxiety is a troubling example. And as in the famous example from the US in the 1930s of an individual severely ailing due to a curse, and then amazingly being cured by a physician’s ingenious placebo treatment that ostensibly broke the spell, we find ourselves in need of some kind of ritual purification delivered by the proper authorities. A counter-spell harmonizing the social relationships, reintroducing us to society, and bringing everything back to the (new) normal. The masking and the distancing, important as they are, merely symbolize and recreate the submission of one’s own identity to the group and its power.
Yes, the vaccine. Again, this is not a reductive take, but whatever else it is and does, the vaccine also functions as a form of initiatory ritual purification. This is not only evident in the pious enthusiasm with which people report their jabs on their social media accounts, almost like they’ve received baptism, but also in the tone of the vaccine marketing and the WHO campaigns, ardently maintaining that the pharmaceuticals ”bring us together again.”
Many anecdotal reports apparently claim that even ”long covid”, an umbrella term for the plethora of post-viral symptoms that in some cases linger after recovery, is incredibly also remedied after administration of the vaccine.
Developed by the heroic scientific priesthood with their occult knowledge, this elixir indeed cures us, proving that the benevolent powers in governance have defeated the terrible hex, and thus disspells all this fear and nervous energy which have been constructed by an incessant media barrage. Society is re-knit in this rite of renewal.
And of course, ritual purity implies the distinction between the clean and the unclean ones. All of us finding a common enemy in the latter further promotes social cohesion and the consolidation of authority. The situation effectively enables political undesirables who in any meaningful way challenge the power structure to be rendered ritually unclean in a rather strong sense. Their very interrogation of the authorities is by implication hazardous, since distrust of the government and the IGOs is almost immediately associated with the undermining of the vital struggle of the medical establishment. Those who question the established narratives pertaining to the covid become blasphemers and dangerous ”denialists” whose very thoughts seem like a threat to those fully identifying with the system and its authority. Woe the great unvaxxed and their stubborn refusal to participate in our collective purification.
Conclusions and further reflections
There are many interesting and plausible hypotheses as to why all of this is taking place. As stated, the West in particular, but not exclusively, has experienced a progressive erosion of internal political legitimacy, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. And as always, the imperative of bolstering profits for major corporate interests is an important factor. Of course, much of the situation is also an entirely emergent phenomenon with regard to the nature of human psychology and the social and political structure in place. But a significant part of what we’re dealing with here has the distinct appearance of emergency measures on the shock doctrine model, with the explicit purpose of getting into place effective structures of governance, and of reinforcing the authority of established institutions. That’s not something one haphazardly engages in without good reason. Furthering the establishment of digital surveillance capitalism à la Zuboff is also a likely ambition, especially if the Marxian hypothesis of the falling rate of profit bears out, and the maintenance of economic growth necessitates devising entirely new ways of extracting the few untouched pockets of surplus value from the already quite ransacked lives of the worker-consumer.
I don’t deny any of this. But I suspect the root cause is both more prosaic, and rather more sobering. I think we’re simply running out of stuff with which to fuel the machine, and that what we’re seeing here are attempts at an adaptation to this fact.
The most cogent proponent of this perspective on the current situation is probably the peak oil author Dmitry Orlov, who posts at cluborlov.com. I won’t be getting into the minutiae of his kind of argumentation, but the gist of it is basically that a set of interlocking crises ahead are threatening the social order, chief of which are the underlying issues of resource depletion. This is especially in terms of the falling net return on the energy and resources needed to produce energy in the first place, which is incrementally rendering further growth and expansion impossible. For the fundamentals of the energy and resource issues, Charles Hall’s Energy and the Wealth of Nations is an excellent source. Alice Friedemann’s blog, energyskeptic.com, also provides a great deal of background data in an accessible format.
A lack of growth caused by an insufficient resource base will fundamentally undermine the industrial economy as it’s currently structured. It will force a radical reorganization of the entire system and a remodeling of the patterns of production and consumption. The important question is on whose terms this will take place. One obvious answer is that the consumption of the vast majority (the lower classes) within the framework of the industrial system, must be reduced. Especially the consumption of energy, but indirectly of everything else – a goal which to some degree will be facilitated by a thorough digitalization of the economy, where we all work, learn and socialize from home.
Any meaningful transition of this sort will be immensively disruptive, and require a rigorous control of information, resource flows and human behaviour, and at a level which practically necessitates some form of digital ID associated with far-ranging data collection pertaining to everything from purchases to physical movement. A social credit system with rewards and punishments to mold and shape behaviour would be a truly indespensible tool for both minimizing tension and preserving the privileges of the class hierarchy in a situation of increasing scarcity and social stratification.
After covid, a guided revitalization of the climate change movement is the straightforward way to really begin addressing these above issues, and to capitalize on both the renewed political legitimacy and the control measures which have been put in place. It would also serve to politically legitimize and render plausible the drastic measures that need to be taken so as to soften the blow for the general population, and safeguard the power structure from significant political dissent.
In relation to all of this, a central issue that liberally-minded people face in the years ahead, is that of how to reclaim and safeguard actual agency in this increasingly authoritarian situation. Indeed, if any sort of transition whatsoever is actually necessary, it ought to be done openly, and from the ground up, at the people’s own terms and not at the behest of class in terests.
Easier said than done, maybe, but spells can be broken. Ideology can be seen through, and the relations of production and decision-making processes can be created and maintained honestly and communally.
And a well-informed communty of peers, bolstered by a truly independent media and legitimate, transparent and virtuous research efforts, may very well decide that our industrial society and its class privileges aren’t really worth the cost of an austere reset and a harrowing transition. That something else entirely ought to be erected in its place.
For true myth as it is, God-given liberty is always greater.