Doublethink and the necessity of propaganda
It has been remarked that Soviet propaganda primarily served the purpose of humiliation and subjugation rather than information in the strict sense. That the purpose was a kind of intellectual and spiritual domination of the subject, ensuring not orthodoxy as much as self-doubt and a fearful obedience.
Whether or not this is a historically accurate analysis, it indeed describes one important effect of modern propaganda, and perhaps especially of its contemporary forms.
Before exploring this, however, it must first be remarked that propaganda, in modern, hyper-technological societies, is entirely ubiquitous. It is not a marginal phenomenon limited to specific uses, such as it was manifested in the early days of the 20th century, epitomized by airplane flier drops or Uncle Sam posters. It entirely saturates our environment, our communications, and the information we receive.
Louis Althusser argued that every modern society, resting upon an interconnected set of institutions and a delicate interplay of specialized roles, must continuously recreate these roles and relations to at all maintain itself. This reproduction takes place through various forms of propaganda, without which, strictly speaking, modern technological societies cannot exist. Where less complex societies recreated their social relationships and productive roles through custom, religion and tradition, techno-industrial societies must employ propaganda, that is, institutional means of psychological influence to shape man’s worldview and attitudes so as to efficiently reproduce and adapt the social roles and relations of production. As Ellul phrased it, ”[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.”
This context of ”necessary propaganda” situates both the comparatively primitive Soviet methods as well as our contemporary mass media. They are simply manifestations of such institutions that are necessary for the survival and reproduction of the system, whose output is mainly determined by that system’s needs rather than by rational and discerning persons.
To Orwell, the most extreme example of this irrational force inherent in modern propaganda, was the doublethink imperative of his fictitious future dystopia. Doublethink was the process whereby one was forced to integrate logically contradictory beliefs, thereby subsuming one’s own reason to the authority of the state. Echoing Aristotle, this subjugation of man’s essentially rational nature is posited as the ultimate form of submission, precisely since rationality is what ultimately makes us human. Doublethink thereby illustrates the most radical domination, since the subject characterized thereby is entirely bereft of his own critical faculties, the core of his humanity, and thereby fully dependent on external authorities for all information and for the shaping of his attitudes.
The situation is similar in contemporary media discourse, saturated by conflicting narratives and lacking a discernible philosophical framework for anchoring truth. The dissociation from reality enables the rapid reorientation of the masses towards whichever position is deemed convenient, no matter how unreasonable, and notwithstanding its coherence with other, previously held positions. One day, we must shelter in place from a deadly pandemic, and the next day, we must all take to the streets in the thousands to protest injustices. Bombarded by mutually incoherent stories and almost always lacking an authoritative and true philosophical framework, the modern Western citizen faces the choice between a form of doublethink, and a heroic effort of reason to discover solid foundations for the discernment of truth. Most lack the resources to select the latter.