Ellul wrote Presence in the Modern World during the very tumultous post-War period of the 1940s — a revolutionary era, as he noted in Chapter 2. He himself served in the French Resistance and had first-hand experience with the conflicting ideologies of fascism, communism, and capitalism.
Despite the ongoing and protracted struggle between viewpoints (within societies, not only between), Ellul wrote that the “appearance of movement and development” was an illusion. “We are in fact in complete stasis.”
Ellul believed this to be the case because none of these “revolutionary” ideologies actually disagreed on the fundamental values of modern civilization, which he listed as “the primacy of production, the constant increase in the powers of the state and the formation of the nation state, the autonomous rise of technique, and so on.” One imagines Ellul at the end of that sentence making a vague sort of “and all this” gesture.
Ellul discusses technique and communications (propaganda) a bit further in this book, and of course he went on to explore them at great depth in multiple volumes. For now, it is enough to say that, from his perspective, civilization is following a path made inevitable by the very structures of that civilization. Any proposed revolution would merely be “surface changes” while in fact reinforcing the existing structures.
“[In order for a revolution to succeed], it would need to use the very means of today’s world. For example, in order to liberate humankind, the compliance of many people would be required; this means that propaganda would have to be in routine use. A politics of the mass would have to be instituted, because that alone can succeed today and it is useless to attempt revolution on some other basis. But if we create a mass, we cooperate precisely with these structures. To free humankind, we would start by destroying everything that still remains free in each person.“p. 20, emphasis added
The differences between parties existed, Ellul wrote, but ultimately they were only about “knowing who will take power.” The point of modern society is the assimilation of individuals into a mass, and once modern premises are accepted, only appearances can change.
Since this book was published 75 years ago, one has to wonder — as we look around the turmoil of the 2020s, wars across the globe and fierce polarization — is Ellul’s belief, that we are in stasis no matter who is in power, still tenable?
In 1989, only 41 years after publishing Presence, Ellul added a footnote to a new edition addressing this section in light of (then) more recent events. He wrote that China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s had aimed to root out Western techniques (along with the very culture of the Chinese people and their traditional social structures), but since then, “China has returned to the path of technique, productivity, economism.” In fact it certainly seems, since Ellul added this note, that China is practically defined by its embrace of technique.
Then there is the matter of Islam. Continuing in 1989, Ellul wrote that Islam “is the only power today that calls the worldwide structures into question,” and that is only because in Islam, state and religion are one. An Islamist revolution, he said, might provide the world’s first true revolutionary victory, “but at the cost of the world’s total enslavement. For Islam is equivalent to what communism was, in its will for absolute domination of the world.”
Given the prevalence of “anti-liberalism” in 21st century political debates, along with “nationalist” and “populist” movements worldwide, is Ellul still correct in his assessment? I would argue, yes.
It’s true that there are a growing number of “Christian” figures who seem envious of the whole Islamic “state-and-religion-are-one” thing, be they Catholic integralists or evangelical “dominionists.” But beyond writing books and arguing with each other, none of them have a realistic path to power in the United States. Some hold out the possibility of taking advantage of, say, the potential re-election of, and subsequent catastrophic reconfiguration of the executive branch by, Donald Trump. But Trump doesn’t care about religion; he specifically upholds technique and a rent-seeking version of capitalism as ideal; he is naked in his desire to wield an expansive power of the state against his enemies.
21st century political “polarization” is centered around mere power. Yes, parties have differences, and those differences can be quite meaningful in terms of specific policy approaches and outcomes for certain groups. But ultimately, these debates are about who will gain power and, once there, how they will stay in power, and for how long.
The companies and technologies made possible by technique and productivity (which have a far more insidious control over our daily lives even than the state) might be regulated, taxed, fined, infiltrated or in some cases, in some countries, even taken over completely by the state — but they are certainly never eliminated. (Would even an anti-liberal, anti-market government that managed to gain control in America even try to shut down, for example, social media — or would it seek to use it to its own advantage, instead?)
From the point of view of the modern state, no matter who is in control, individuals can be a mass, or they can be slaves, or both. But where does that leave Christians?