We live in times of rampant social inequality and division. The extant political inequalities are hierarchical, and result in the increasing prevalence of wealthy elites who traverse the realms of business and politics. In a politico-economic climate in which money can buy you virtually anything, including political influence, it seems clear that elites would have an interest in sustaining this social order. How is it that in a liberal democracy, elites are able to uphold their positions as such?
Jason Stanley describes the workings of propaganda as a tool in the arsenal of the elite. Stanley addresses sustained social inequality by making the provocative suggestion that propaganda has pernicious epistemic features that are often overlooked in conventional readings of the concept. Propaganda, understood in this way, comes to explain the extreme social division in many contemporary societies, evident in expressions of nationalism and racism. Stanley’s explanations, when read alongside Wendy Brown’s work in Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, allows us to understand why increasingly, our societies are plagued by seemingly intractable disagreements about political issues. Moreover, we can consider how this intractability comes to destroy the possibility of a healthy liberal democracy. Such a democracy, according to Brown, should be founded on a shared interest in working out a notion of the good through contestation about common ends and political principles such as the nature of justice.
In How Propaganda Works Stanley investigates the material and social conditions that give rise to and fuel successful propaganda. While it might be natural to associate propaganda with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, Stanley argues that propaganda also poses a great danger to liberal democracies. In an internet age dominated by misinformation this danger is only exacerbated.
What is propaganda? On a simplistic reading, propaganda could be understood as biased or misleading information circulated with the intent of promoting a particular political agenda via emotional means. Essentially, propaganda aims to exploit the human capacity for emotional reaction by mobilizing it in favour of or against a given stance, thereby closing off the possibility for reasoned engagement. Most people are familiar with propaganda of the supportive kind. Supportive propaganda aims to realize the ideals that it explicitly promotes and is often found in straightforwardly authoritarian regimes. Here, the stated objectives are in line with actual objectives. A more nefarious kind of propaganda, what Stanley terms undermining propaganda, however, is what poses a serious threat to liberal democracies. This is because such propaganda presents itself as promoting some set of ideals, while it, in actual fact, erodes them. In this way, claims that parade as promoting the “public good” in reality only serve the interests of specific groups.
Despite the widespread belief in democratic equality in many developed nations, an insane level of injustice still exists and is often only evident to those directly suffering through it. The key issue here is that the belief in democratic progress (as opposed to actual democratic progress) can coexist with stark economic and racial inequality. This striking incongruence is, unsurprisingly, explained by the role of undermining propaganda in foreclosing the possibility of that which is essential to the healthy functioning of liberal democracy.
Stanley claims, following John Rawls, that the normative ideal of public reason in liberal democracies is “reasonableness”. What such “reasonableness” entails is a kind of charitable interpretation of the views of others, where we recognize that some theories, while viewed as reasonable from one perspective, may be viewed by others as unreasonable. For example, the perspectives of prisoners, which would inform a specific view of what might constitute a reasonable view on the prison system, are often excluded from public debate on issues which directly affect prison population. This means that public deliberation about the prison system proceeds without considering the perspectives of prisoners, thus undermining the laws and policies that might flow from such deliberation. Here, Stanley points out the importance of empathy in his conception of “reasonableness”, as to be empathetic is to be sensitive to the fact that there may be multiple perspectives from which a policy or doctrine might appear “reasonable” (to a Christian abortion might be “unreasonable”, whereas it might be unproblematic from the perspective of secular humanism). Essentially, “to be reasonable is to take one’s proposals to be accountable to everyone in the community” (108). How is it possible that propaganda can set out to appear reasonable, yet undermine reasonableness itself?
The way this occurs is through flawed ideologies, which are ideologies that function inherently as barriers to the acquisition of knowledge. This is where Stanley is at his most instructive: instead of framing flawed ideologies as a political problem, he shows that these ideologies are epistemically flawed, which then results in political and material inequality. That is, the instrumental force in producing and sustaining inequalities is the way in which ideologies are deployed to function as barriers to the acquisition of knowledge. Their epistemic flaws are revealed once we appreciate the socially embedded nature of ideological beliefs.
Stanley thus locates the problem of flawed ideologies within the realm of social epistemology as opposed to individual psychology. This move opens the door to alternative explanations of persistent ideological belief. One of the reasons for this is that ideologies are connected to the agent’s identity and often legitimate that identity. Notably, such beliefs are conceptually connected to the social identities of their adherents, which is what gives them their “stickiness” and makes them seemingly immune to revision, even in the face of countervailing evidence. Additionally, such beliefs are shaped by our social practices and habits, which often form the basis of what constitutes a community. It is thus incredibly difficult for individual agents to give up these kinds of beliefs.
For example, consider the seemingly simple case of political party affiliation. In many cases your political beliefs, are, firstly, heavily influenced by the community you were raised in. Secondly, such beliefs will significantly shape the kinds of people you befriend and with whom you keep company. Thus, your “community” is in an important sense a function of your political beliefs. On its own, this is not necessarily problematic. People should have the freedom to choose who they associate with. However, problems emerge when political beliefs become tethered to specific political parties, of which you are a member and which seek to impair judgment (through propaganda) about policies that might address inequality. Beliefs about political party affiliation, as noted above, are closely coupled with how an agent views themselves in relation to others in their community. Abandoning (and revising) such beliefs can be especially straining, as the agent might lose their status in or worry about being abandoned by their community. The fact that we are all socially embedded means that our identities are not “all in the head” of individual agents, but, rather, are shaped by our peer group, family, friends, etc.
Flawed ideologies, on this account, are not merely a matter of the subjective beliefs of individual agents, and their amelioration is, therefore, dependent on an examination of social reality. Being part of social reality, ideological commitments can undermine the reasonableness of public political discourse. This is due, in part, to the pervasive myth of meritocracy, even in the face of stark economic inequality.
In addition to Stanley’s idea that meritocracy (re)inscribes hierarchical power structures and unduly justifies high positions, relatedly, Brown points out that the myth of meritocracy ensures that that those on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy are also held responsible for their placement there. This “responsibilization” explains a further way in which undermining propaganda is instrumental in upholding inequality. It makes clear that the meritocratic ideal of success determined by merit is no more than a mirage. The fact is that many in power do not have their positions on this basis, while they simultaneously explain away any comparative lack of success in attainting power through a supposedly meritocratic system. Stanley’s linguistic response to responsibilization is to refer to those typically labelled “disadvantaged” as “negatively privileged.” This explains the social position of the poor and disenfranchised in terms of privilege rather than advantage. While advantage is often attributed to a difference in merit or skill, privilege describes the unequal, potentially unjust, distribution of goods in society. It works against the idea that the relative position of the poor is their fault alone and solely theirs to rectify. In the instance of social, political and economic inequalities, the notion of “negative privilege” allows for a more nuanced understanding of what is going on as well as for a reorientation of blame-attribution.
Stanley’s notion of propaganda, in explaining how social divisions come to be mobilized, prompts us to consider how propaganda bears on the subject. What occurs in the process of subject formation if we consider the role of undermining propaganda and the proliferation of flawed ideology? For Stanley, identity consists in belonging to a social community defined by a set of norms, understood as dynamic aspects which inform personal identity. For community members, deviating from these norms may be stress-inducing, but it remains possible. If identity constitutes dynamic norms, then the principal detriment of undermining propaganda is to inscribe political ideology into this identity. When personal identity is coextensive with some flawed ideology, emotional responses are elicited. In contrast to the dynamism of social norms and the possibility of breaking them, these norms come to be held as static, essential elements of one’s identity. Undermining propaganda functions to posit flawed ideology as the epitome of justice and equality, operating as an ideological entrapment, ensuring social division and contributing to policies and rationality which undermine liberal democratic ideals. Through the deployment of undermining propaganda, the opposing stances which once might have marked the beginning of collective democratic engagement come to function as necessary aspects of individual identity and are defended as such.
Propaganda exploits the social nature of identity, while turning it inward and politicizing its constituent elements. Subsequently, debates about politics, which should involve good faith engagement, are comprehended as mere personal attacks. Naturally, the negation of another’s identity should be understood as the attack that it is, but what makes up this identity should not escape our interrogation.
It is worth problematizing the surreptitious work of undermining propaganda, which lets political affiliation be part of one’s identity. Political ideals are mobilized as representing individual identity, when in fact they entrench groupthink, resulting in a loss of dynamic and rigorous political engagements essential to political progress and critique.
If, as Brown suggests, the basis of democracy is the possibility to examine, defend, support and refute political ideas in order to collectively develop a notion of “the good”, then the role of propaganda in producing seemingly intractable differences, solidifying divisions and upholding inequalities, demonstrates its contribution to the destruction of democracy. The entrenchment of such divisions spells the end of democratic deliberation of the good based on reasonableness and a notion of shared interests. If we cannot agree on the rules of the game for public deliberation, we have little hope of achieving social justice. This does not mean that we should hope and aim for a future where we all agree with each other. Rather, we must admit that politics is necessarily contested, and that to aim for homogeneity in this sphere would do us no good. A good democracy is one in which ideas are debated and contested. Democratic contestation, however, is impossible without a community of epistemically healthy agents who are not under the influence of undermining propaganda.
Stanley, J. (2015). How Propaganda Works. Princeton: Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/analys/anw046
Brown, W. (2015) Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. New York: Zone Books. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt17kk9p8