Art as a Prefigurative Politics that Struggles Against Propaganda

Might we actually see propaganda, with its prerogative to lie and distort and manufacture consent, as analogous with the secondary drives of neurotic organisms?
What are the secondary drives of neurotic organisms, and what do we mean by secondary drives and neurotic organisms?

By secondary drives we mean the antisocial unconscious of humanity that civilization is supposed to tame, but which is actually produced by the social coercive forces of authoritarian civilization. Similarly by neurotic organism, we mean the precise kind of subject produced by the social coercive forces in authoritarian civilization. It is the result of what Wilhelm Reich called “secondary impulses.” In his own words: “The antisocial element in the human structure, is a secondary result of the repression of primary biological impulses,” (Preface to the Third Edition of The Mass Psychology of Fascism).

If we consider the birth of public relations, and how it comes out of a sort of instumentalized Freudianism, the idea that propaganda works on the neurotic secondary drives of humanity, actually starts to seem like a fairly plausible hypothesis.
Furthermore, if the “manufacturing of consent” is one of the crucial forms of social coercion repressing the possibility of social revolution, what might that mean for how we think about practically confronting this major front in the battle for a better world?

The revolutionary versus the reactionary “character”

Let us begin by opposing two possibilities of the human character.
We shall use a “characterological” concept of Reich’s.
In a previous essay, “Escapism, Entertainment, Society,” I considered a desire for escape—as in the experience of seeking out escapism in media or entertainment—as being rooted in a particular social context of essentially learned helplessness. I proposed a possible alternative to the negative desire for escape, as in that magnified into a type of addiction, in the commitment to social or political struggle. In this way—in short—since social and political conditions create the desire to escape; rather than consent to this addictive inaction, one rather commits to the difficult, though ultimately more worthwhile, struggle to confront those negative forces in society.
From henceforth, it also seems possible to formulate this basic opposition, in terms of what Reich saw as a “revolutionary” or “reactionary” character.
The “revolutionary” character, is one who faces existential anxiety, political anxiety, through healthy confrontation. The “reactionary” character faces these modern forces, through escapist forms of behavior, such as scapegoating, retreat into illusions, etc.

The secondary drives are commanded in propaganda

We shall posit that the same drives within a character that motivate the desire to escape, are at work in what makes for an effective manufacturing of consent or indoctrination through processes of propaganda. This is because the secondary drives as above defined, in their very nature, essentially represent a character structure which arises out of the imperatives of social coercion, and which is a functional thwarting of the primary drives within the organism. Another way of saying that the individual is acting out of compulsion, and not voluntarism. In this way, please see a basic opposition stated for compulsory versus voluntary action, in a previous short essay, “A Theory of Mutuality.” In short it is to say, the degree of voluntary versus compulsory action is conditioned on the degree of equality of relationships within a unit.

The point to do with equality of relationships, or the absence of arbitrary hierarchies of command, is to suggest that the secondary drives seem to come out of a character structure which is essentially indoctrinated into conditions of social coercion. On the contrary, a better world or more free society must then by necessity be built on the precise opposite, that is to say, conditions of voluntary action. But for the purposes of this current hypothesis, I want to limit myself to considering the ways in which the secondary drives, or the human structure conditioned by social coercion, lend themselves to control or manipulation by forces such as propaganda. Indeed I am willing to go so far as to assert, that the presence of secondary drives in the human organism, seems to be the metric by which the human structure has been conditioned by social coercive forces in the sense of having been indoctrinated into an authoritarian form of civilization.

An authoritarian form of civilization by definition must be coercive. Social coercion must work through the proliferation of certain messages, because the human organism is a communicative species. When we are in conditions of command relationships, these messages originate from a center, a top, and proliferate outwards and downwards, in an essentially hierarchical structure. This type of structure is the basis of what we call an authoritarian form of civilization.

In modern societies, the main way of reaching the entirety of its subjects, is through the mass media. In our day and age, the mass media has become so ubiquitous and intimate, that it is now the primary object most people spend the majority of their waking life engaging with. This other problem in itself aside, the point we are here most interested in, is the degree to which the current forms of mass media represent a command mechanism for interacting with the secondary drives and producing and reproducing the current form of unequal society. We shall here assert, going further that the current stage in global mass communications represents a basic either “utopian” or “dystopian” possibility, for a further evolution in human society; and that furthermore, taking into account our current social conditions, the way one faces this ubiquitous and intimate structure of mass media connectedness, could be construed as following either a generally revolutionary or reactionary logic.

In respect to this question of primary and secondary drives, and how this can be construed as a difference between voluntary and compelled behavior and character, regarding mass media and propaganda in specific, we can also draw an equivalent between conscious and unconscious forms of interpretation. On some level, the difference between the revolutionary and the reactionary character, is also the difference between the indoctrinated subject and the one which plays an active role in the creation and interpretation and proliferation of their own, or some voluntarily chosen, ideology. In short, we are again really talking about whether or not one plays an active or passive role in the shaping of material conditions through the exertion of either a compelled or voluntary ethos.

An ethical contradiction regarding how to live

The secondary drives create an entirely different code of morality. One based on compulsion.
When people talk about how human nature is a certain way, and thus is in need of being controlled, what they are actually talking about, are the secondary drives. Hence the irony is that since these antisocial behaviors are generated through social forms that are repressive in their nature; the code people are speaking of, is actually a solution to a problem it has generated.
In a sense people are made antisocial, through the frustration of their basic needs. But that frustration is also identical to the command to behave.
The human species doesn’t need to be commanded to behave; that is to say, human nature isn’t inherently antisocial. Far from it. The human species simply couldn’t have evolved without a central degree of sociality.
The idea that the human species is inherently antisocial, competitive to the fault of violence, again seems clearly a preconception of a particular social form which is built on hierarchy, class and command, indeed, authoritarian civilization. In truth the human species is capable of a wide variety of social forms; and an innate sense of sociality, of cooperativeness, of a desire for and belief in structures of mutual aid, is as human as its potential for violence, domination and enslavement. This fact is clear enough to the revolutionary character, or subject who plays an active role in their own ideology, and whose sense of morality and drive is based on voluntarism; yet it must be denied by the reactionary character, who will view the current social and material conditions as immutable, necessary to the point of being “eternal,” and incapable of being altered.

We can see this same conflict play out in view of the basic problem in our current world of anxiety. A conflict is generated of whether to confront or escape from it. These two modes contradict one another, especially if embodied by two different people in a single unit. So for the one who wants to confront, it bothers the one who wants to escape; and when the one escapes, it makes it impossible for the other to confront. It becomes a “moral” problem. For the one who will confront the problems of our day, this becomes a big part of what informs their understanding of morality. For the one who will not, they must justify their inaction, through some notion of impossibility, or the idea of taking political action as futile.

As such, they need to relieve themselves of their hard work in propping up the system, in two ways. One way is through escapism, and another it seems is through some other moral perspective. One that can justify its inaction in the political sphere, through some, essentially fantastical, other notion of what constitutes being a moral person.

A new way to think of art in opposition to propaganda

It is here that I want to redirect the essay, back to the problem of escapism, and to tie that into a notion of propaganda which we might oppose through a new understanding of art.
We should probably see art as the domain in which to counter propaganda, especially those operations of propaganda which distort reality or the truth. In this way we may look at this form of propaganda-countering art as a form of prefigurative politics. This is precisely because the degree to which the illusions generated by propaganda are confronted, that opens up a space in the imagination to truly conceive of political possibilities and social alternatives.
This type of art should not consider itself theory. Once it does, it is much more in the domain of propaganda. And in this definition of what propaganda is, that means it is more in the game of obscuring truth, rather than trying to bring that to the light. We should save this type of activity for theory and journalism, science, etc.
Though we should understand some nuance here that propaganda is a “science.”
As such, prefigurative political art rejects art as entertainment which is pure escapism, because this serves the reactionary character. The reactionary character is easily moved through the manipulation of their secondary drives. We see one way that escapism functions in this regard, as the flip side of compulsory work, being “rewarded,” or, at the very least, relieved, through the balmy effect of mental activity which is completely passive, feel-good, and opiate-like in its capacity to numb; to assist in an unthinking form of pleasure.

The difference between the imagination and mere fantasizing

How else exactly might we conceive of escapism?
It is in short, perhaps somewhat poetically, a retreat into a fantasy. Reich talks often about anxiety as a withdrawal into the self, the opposite of his conception of a healthy life attitude, which reaches out and wants to be a part.
I would contend that fantasizing in a way, has some connection to the secondary drives. In this way, we might oppose the idea of fantasizing to that of the imagination. In this case, the action of fantasizing, would be defined more strictly, as a deliberate withdrawal from reality. Where conversely, the imagination can still interact with reality. As such, we might oppose say, a daydream, with that of a performance of a play. We may go further, to stress the differences, of being somehow the difference between the social and the antisocial. Furthermore we might oppose perhaps pornography with the real act of lovemaking. For, fantasy, in essence, becomes something which can be fixated on, at the expense of thinking about reality.
In other words, thinking about politics in terms of a fantasy would become a kind of distraction, or justification for not needing to have to attempt to achieve something in reality, especially something which could fail.
Now, in art, it is actually possible to achieve a fantasy; the impossible so to speak. Although it remains an achievement in an abstract medium.
Yet it strikes me that through such an experimentation, one might be able to begin to interface, with what is actually possible or impossible in reality.
At any rate, if you look at what propaganda is, it is the carrying out of some will, through the act of fabrication, through manipulation of discourse, in short, through the creation of fantasies.


One functional domain of art, could be as a medium in which to prefigure politics. Partly this would be done through the countering of propaganda, and partly through the prefiguring in conceptual form—through the contemplation of possibility—of social and political alternatives. To demand art function in this way, still entertaining, but not as pure escapism, would then possibly grow into a type of parallel—through the struggle that entails—with an actual practice of prefigurative politics.
Another way of thinking about it is that pure escapism serves the reactionary character. The revolutionary character is one who struggles against the falseness of a social order premised on coercion; they oppose authoritarian civilization by championing voluntarism; they do not shy away from the uncomfortable facts of our existence, by retreating into a fantasy, but rather strive to confront these forces in a meaningful way, that is to say, in the world. Art is a way of internalizing problems of the world, and possibly finding prefigurative solutions, through the unique operations of the imagination. This may not lead to the productions of bestsellers; however maybe given enough time, it could lead to more general hopefulness regarding the possibilities of a better world.

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