The Political Illusion

In The Political Illusion, Jacques Ellul argues that all facets of political activity are a kaleidoscope of interlocking illusions – a “political illusion” unique to our modern world that veils a reality we cannot control.

When Politics is Everything

The illusion begins with politicization, that is, the act of suffusing everything with politics and dragging it into the political arena, thus reducing everything to politics. This creates an environment where all problems are perceived as political problems in need of political solutions.

As an example of how politics has overshadowed everything, simply consider how moral values have been politicized and redefined to the extent that traditional ways of understanding them hardly remain viable.

Consider freedom. Do we value freedom personally, or does it only have meaning in a socio-political sense? Is freedom merely the product of state force exercised through military victories and police presence, or is it a virtue we can possess and experience apart from the state? Ellul asks, “Is freedom negligible unless it is officially incorporated in a regime, or the fruit of a constitution, or represented by the participation of a citizen in state power?” (16)

Similarly, justice is no longer viewed primarily as a personal virtue but as something more or less attained by law. “Social” (that is, State) justice has co-opted justice so that it is difficult to speak of justice without political overtones. As a result,

the difficult questions by legal philosophers of past centuries make no more sense to us now than does the Christian affirmation that justice is the individual’s miraculous transformation by the grace of God. In our day values that cannot be given political content or serve some political activity are no longer taken seriously. (16)

In this politicized society, the terms justice, freedom, and truth have new connotations: “justice now means happiness produced by equal distribution of material goods; freedom has come to mean high living standards and long vacations; and truth, more or less, has come to mean exactness with regard to facts” (30-31).

Because these values have been politicized, it is the state’s job to secure these values. Regardless of whether we are personally just, truthful, or liberated, we demand that the state “assure social justice, guarantee truth in information, [and] protect freedom” (186). It is Ellul’s contention that when we view “the state as creator and protector of values” we have completely given in to politicization: “The state as creator and protector of values—that is the business of politics” (186).

“Religious” Devotion

Since politics is everything, participation in political matters (even if only nominal) is the principal criterion of one’s dignity, personality, and liberty. Political affairs are what really counts. People must participate and “make their voices heard.”

This judgment, only mildly exaggerated, has its corollary: the severe condemnation of “apolitical people.” In our society anyone who keeps himself in reserve, fails to participate in elections, regards political debates and constitutional changes as superficial and without real impact on the true problems of man… will be judged very severely by everybody. He is the true heretic of our day. (18)

The reason for this public censure is that “man in his entirety is being judged today in relation to political affairs, which are invested with ultimate value” (19). As Ellul argues in The New Demons, the state is the new sacred and politics the new religion.

Clearly we do not have a religion sanctified by the state, but we do have a religion of state (worship of the state). One need simply observe the religious fervor attached to political participation. Note the devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, the passion of those obsessed with politics. Consider the endless hours listening to pundits analyze, editorialize, and strategize. Witness the absolute certainty that people possess regarding their political positions and their subsequent willingness to belittle, condemn, and demonize those who disagree. Such passion, commitment, and identification were once reserved for religious devotion. That similar expressions exist in regard to politics demonstrates the ultimate value placed there.

Furthermore, one’s political party now provides all the comforts of a church body. In the great, solemn, and vibrant meetings of his party a man

can experience the communion that he absolutely needs but no longer finds in his family, his neighborhood, or his work – a common objective, some great popular drive in which he can participate, a camaraderie, a special vocabulary, an explanation of the world. Politics offers him these joys and symbols, these indispensable expressions of communion. (22)

All this leads to the great moment when one’s vote is cast. “As prayer will release transcendental forces, the voting ballot will move the sovereign will” (187).

The Illusion of Problem-Solving

What do we get for all our devotion and participation? Answers to all problems? No, we get the best politics can give: The illusion of change which is (at best) often only superficial, coupled with an ever-expanding bureaucracy and a commitment to power (the rule of force) as a legitimate way to achieve one’s agenda.

Though our participation appears effective on the surface, it is merely an illusion. We “the people” do not control the state with our ballots. At best, we control who is on the top of the pyramid, but that does not mean control of the state. Elected representatives have no way of controlling – or even thoroughly knowing – the behemoth under them.

Professional politicians have little time to be concerned with anything other than the eternal struggle to attain and retain power, first against rivals in their own camps, and then against opposing parties. They are interested only in having the support of numbers and the hopes and aspirations of the rank and file are filtered, not up but out.

And when the professional politician finally wins office, there is little hope for real change, for the state is a vast body, possessing a multitude of centers, bureaus, services, and establishments. “A modern state is not primarily a centralized organ of decision, a set of political organs. It is primarily an enormous machinery of bureaus” (141).

And these bureaus have taken on an independent life of their own that resists change:

the bureaucratic administration has powers of decision and censure outside the elected political powers, and obeys special interests (though it does that at times) and person pressures (which is very rare) much less than inexorable operational laws. What is frequently overlooked is that the administrative machine’s complexity precludes any decision by a single center and that the bureaucracy’s – inevitable – weight makes it impossible for a chief to activate the whole mechanism transmitting orders. (144)

The spread of bureaucracy is inevitable for those who expect political solutions to everything. “A state that wants to do everything and change everything, can do so only with the help of an enormous bureaucracy” (155). The problem with bureaucracy is its ultimate impersonality and inability to help people at an individual level.

Bureaucracy functions without regard for individuals; it executes impersonal rules. It would go against the entire progress of modern states and administrations to run things and pay attention to individuals, i.e., follow personal interests and subjective judgments; instead, administration is objective and cannot budge before individual complaints or needs. (158)

When bureaucracy “penetrates the political machine and ‘corners’ all power of decision, it actually becomes the state” (153-154). This leads to vast state authoritarianism: “A bureaucratic administration cannot be anything but authoritarian, even if it has no intention of being so” (157).

This authoritarianism exists in a state that maintains its power through the use of force. There is always a fundamental contradiction between politics and justice because the state holds a monopoly on power and must maintain this power.

Politics… can act only with material or psychological force—with spiritual, ideological, or police constraint. A well-conducted political move can never produce anything but power—the institutions created by it are only ends or instruments of such power. (196)

This power is desired by all who participate. Ellul cleverly argues that no party really wants to reduce state power, but actually, each wants the state’s power to be wielded to their party’s advantage.

The more an individual has become politized, the more he will see and think about all problems as political problems, the more importance will he attach to political action… At the same time, the more politized he is, the more will he be focused on and oriented toward that basic political force and form: the state. The more he takes recourse to the state, the more power he gives it. For him the only problem is: who will control the state? Will it be his party? All will then be perfect. Will it be another party? Then things will be bad. But he never thinks of reducing the state itself—on the contrary. All he thinks of is to replace the incumbents. No minority wants to reduce the state’s power. (197)

Re-inventing Real Life

“It is wrong to say that politics is everything, but it is a fact that in our society everything has become political” (79). This is tragic, for most problems demand more than a political solution. We need more than bureaucracies that know no law except necessity. Our problems go deeper than politics can supply: “politics absolutely cannot deal with man’s personal problems, such as good and evil, or the meaning of life, or the responsibilities of freedom” (186).

Clearly, the solution is not to depoliticize. This merely gives the state more power.

We must participate in the system, but we must resist assimilation in “the political illusion” and see things as they are. The first step is to demythologize politics and put it into its proper, limited place. Politics is not everything, and everything is not politics.

We then must “re-invent” private life: “Private life must be ‘re-invented.’ It is necessary to “re-invent” a situation in which life’s true problems are not posed in political terms” (205-206).

Quotes excerpted from The Political Illusion by Jacques Ellul.

2 Responses to “The Political Illusion”

  1. Scott Canatsey says:

    Thanks Rich. This really helps one understand how venomous politics really are. Insidious and yet obvious.

  2. Rick Doll says:

    I recently saw the following: “The solution to our national problems will not be found in an elephant or a donkey, but inThe Lamb!”

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