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A US War Bond Campaign from 1918 remains chillingly relevant to this week’s news. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

The essence of propaganda is to capture the imagination so thoroughly that the mind has no choice but to follow, holding you in thrall with the medium so the message is absorbed and accepted without question. Propaganda: Power and Persuasion at the British Library succeeds because its presentation is as compelling as its analysis.

This has been a week when the issues of consent, control and information that underlie any discussion of propaganda have been very important. Internationally, the revelations around Operation Prism and the mining of data have raised these questions particularly sharply, while in the UK the continuing row over the history curriculum and the plans to commemorate the 1914 centenary through ‘objective facts’ are also relevant. Most pointedly, this week the Russian Duma passed legislation making it illegal to spread what it termed ‘homosexual propaganda’, which it seems to equate with simply being homosexual. The question of how we navigate between education which teaches us how to think and propaganda which tells us what to think is not a relic, any more than it was in 2007-2008 when the Imperial War Museum put on the related exhibition of war posters, Weapons of Mass Communication. David Welch, in his beautifully produced book accompanying this exhibition, outlines the continuing tensions and fault lines very concisely, perhaps setting out the case for a detoxification of the word propaganda better than the exhibition does.

Welch’s concern for the negative connotation of the term propaganda raises very acutely the problems surrounding the limits of language to express anything without imposing some kind of register or significance on what it describes – what has been termed the problem of emplotment. Earlier this week I added my name to an open letter to the Prime Minister and Education Secretary which claims that the proposed history curriculum runs counter to the 1996 and 2002 Education Acts. It refers to a petition to ‘Keep the History Curriculum Politically Neutral’, opposing the promotion of ‘a nationalist political agenda [which] will stop history being a vehicle for teaching critical thought.’ This is a worthy and well-intentioned campaign, which does not (in all fairness) make clear what the author of both letter and petition propose to teach instead and why (and indeed how) that is neutral. I am, if not a Marxist, then certainly a leftie – and if I weren’t, Michael Gove excoriating Marxists and lefties would certainly increase my sympathy with them. At the same time, however, it is vital to maintain the distinction between ‘neutral’ and ‘what I happen to agree with’. To do otherwise is to engage in propaganda.

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Detail from ‘Page 1, Penelope’ (Joe Tilson, 1969) in the British Library foyer. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

Underneath these issues is another conflict beautifully drawn out by the exhibition between integrative and divisive propaganda. Portraying the enemy is one thing, but it always goes alongside a definition of the collective, and official propaganda can acquire its own power as its themes are developed ad hoc by societies in ways that do not stay within the confines of doctrine. In his novel, The Woman Who Waited, Andrei Makine describes the way in which for many Russians ‘this slim consolation was all they had left: the belief that, thanks to their husbands, brothers or sons, Leningrad had not fallen.’ In the face of this kind of meaning being derived, the narrator concedes that the description ‘propaganda’ seems ‘a little on the terse side.’

In Britain, the work by Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang on the Mass Observation weekly summaries of the public mood highlights that across Europe this kind of information was collected to a purpose during World War 2. Seventy years later, many of the slogans and campaigns developed in response are part of the common cultural framework: Dig for Victory, Careless Talk Costs Lives, Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases,Make Do and Mend. All of these have been revived by the Imperial War Museum for their modern resonances with ecologically sustainable living. Even the duds – Keep Calm and Carry On was never widely distributed due to lack of response – have become a part of our discourse, as anyone who watched the Hungarian dance troupe Attraction win Britain’s Got Talent after a montage of soupy patriotism can attest.

We all have views on whether a message is good or bad that rely on criteria which are to varying degrees impervious to argument. Though Max Hastings this week seemed unclear about this, it is very hard to state ‘just the facts’ – and consequently retaining a firm grasp on when propaganda is bad is not as easy as it might seem. One of the sections in the exhibition is called ‘Nation’ and includes the following comment on the inclusive use of propaganda in the processes following decolonisation.

To succeed, new leaders had to build credibility and authority among their populations. Where nations included diverse cultures and perspectives, new rulers worked hard to create a sense of unified purpose.

Benedict Anderson suggests in Imagined Communities that this process is more of a cycle where aspirations and self-conceptions agglomerate to untidily form what we now term ‘nationalism’. Is a national self-awareness merely a form of propaganda? I was reminded of Yes, Prime Minister, where Bernard would formulate ‘irregular verbs’ to demonstrate hypocrisy: he might have said that I inspire; you preach; he spreads propaganda. Alistair Campbell is a talking head in the exhibition and praises the power of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony with the simple (and telling) phrase ‘That’s country branding.’ Well, yes it is – but so was Triumph of the Will.

The difficulty in answering these questions is skilfully reflected in the exhibition design. Sections bleed into one another and so emphasise the commonalities between campaigns to (variously) smoke less or not at all, buy war bonds, take more exercise, realise the objectives of the Five-Year Plan, use a handkerchief, enlist in the army or have only one child. This last poster, for the One-Child Policy, was for me the most horrific in its concealment of awful, sustained (and continuing) suffering behind simpering glossiness. Though I am aware that others might find the insouciant sense of entitlement of the interwar Empire Marketing Board equally if not more deceitful. One man’s nostalgia, after all, is another woman’s history of bloody oppression. In moving the viewer to consider the contradictions and centrality of ‘our’ histories this exhibition is constantly engaging, challenging and informative.

In being so, however, the means by which this happens are slightly neglected. The diversity and quantity of what is on display is incredible in terms of both historical scope and geographical coverage. I felt at times, though, that a more focused look at why and how different forms and media, whether visual, plastic or performative, have their effects would have been useful. The throwaway reference to the ‘documentary style’ of Der Ewige Jude really needed to consider the range of visual and social criteria suggested by the phrase. As John Tagg put it in the title of his book, there is a burden to representation which this exhibition perhaps wears a little too lightly at times. I was struck by the analysis of one of Norman Rockwell’s ‘Four Freedoms’ posters: it took the individual image apart but did not address the way in which the campaign as a whole opposed the ‘Freedom from Fear’ and ‘Freedom from Want’ which were ‘Ours to fight for’ and the ‘Freedom of Worship’ and ‘Freedom of Speech’ – which were there to be saved (in all cases by buying War Bonds). Medium and message could perhaps have been isolated slightly more. In the same vein, I felt that amongst an abundance of manipulative polemic, any distinction between ‘propaganda’ and ‘anti-propaganda’ boiled down to very subjective and historically contingent judgements. And there were some missed opportunities in this context: for example the ironies of poacher turning gamekeeper. We have all, at some point, been more spinned against than spinning.

On a related note, I was struck by the way which the form of the exhibition encouraged a kind of ‘semiotic totalitarianism’ in some of its structures. Waiting to listen on individual headphones to some of the audio-visual material locks the visitor into their individual experience in a way which recalls Arendt’s idea of an ‘atomised’ society, with the possibility of debate and discussion closed off. The faceless mannequins, often with apposite quotations on their chests, are extremely ambiguous, recalling both the silenced individual and the faceless guard. Finally, the security guards who smoothly insinuate themselves as people try to take (forbidden) photographs bring to life the ultimate goal of propaganda: to control and define the terms of individual experience, if necessary by force but ideally by volition.

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A helicopter hovers over Central London, 11 June, 2013: the Evening Standard reported that ‘Police made arrests as they launched a crackdown to prevent rioting and serious disorder’ ahead of next week’s G8 summit. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

Propaganda therefore requires surveillance: to tell people what they should think requires that you first know what they are thinking, so that can be either subverted or reinforced. Whether it’s called opinion polling, market research or preventive custody, and whether you get a free coffee or a trip to the camps as a result, the prerequisite of propaganda is the maintenance of supervision over the thoughts and activities of others. It requires, in short, the creation of a power structure of information and ideas. As a plaque in the office of a Nixon White House Staffer put it, ‘If you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.’

Once established, these structures are extremely resistant. Ellen Gallagher’s aggressive deconstructions of the racial and gender identities expressed through advertising are a case in point. As much as they attack the status quo, they are also exhibited within it (at Tate Modern) and thus to some extent tamed.

These are obviously very live issues this week, with the revelation that the NSA and GCHQ routinely obtain, store and analyse our data, often with the connivance of some very familiar – if not perhaps actually trusted – brands. In response, William Hague issued the standard bromide: that the innocent have nothing to fear. And it should be borne in mind that there is a lot to keep track of. The exhibition’s final installation, Chorus, 2013, consists of fifteen columns of Twitter posts, pulsing relentlessly across the field of view while being sorted in different ways. No eye could possibly monitor such action – and this is just a tiny fraction of the stream of data produced every second of every minute of every day. One has to wonder whether, just as to defend everything is to defend nothing, to collect such quantities of data is to render it permanently incomprehensible, certainly for the predictive purposes that some might suggest. So why collect it? So that when your crime is discovered (or more worryingly, defined) the evidence can be found? The innocent do have nothing to fear: but who decides who is innocent? How do I know they’re wrong? The real damage done by propaganda is its erosion of the essential trust that exists in a healthy society between government and the people.

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is at the British Library (www.bl.uk/propaganda) until 17 September, 2013. Adults £9 (£10 with GiftAid donation), Under 18s free, Concessions available.

Ellen Gallagher: AxME is at Tate Modern (www.tate.org.uk) until 1 September. Adults £11, Concessions £9.50.

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