What is the difference between propaganda and story? In Part III of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote, “Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself; the masses have to be won by propaganda (Arendt, OT, p. 450).” Propaganda is tool for persuading the masses, who are characterized by gullibility and cynicism. As Arendt pointed out, “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything was possible and that nothing was true (Arendt, OT, p. 499).” Totalitarian propaganda exploits this epistemological paradox of the masses by shrouding the propaganda with two key characteristics: mysteriousness and consistency. Mysteriousness provides a portal through which to escape reality and consistency provides the necessary mechanism to insure that reality will never be returned to. These two factors made Nazi propaganda especially effective in persuading the masses, as Arendt explains:
The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably apart…. What the masses refuse to recognize is the fortuitousness that pervades reality. They are predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences by inventing an all embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident. Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency (Arendt, OT, pp. 462-463).
Totalitarian propaganda works because the masses do not trust “their own experience,” and because it can make all apparent contradictions disappear by appealing to an “all embracing omnipotence,” like a Jewish world conspiracy. In this since, propaganda is always driven by a single, all encompassing narrative. It is characterized by a universality and consistency that eliminates contingency. It is a warm refuge from reality for the atomized and despairing masses.
Story is of a different order all together. Stories arise from the personal experience of particular individuals, but as Arendt points out in The Human Condition, no one is the sole author of her story,
Although everybody started his life by inserting himself into the human world through action and speech, nobody is the author or producer of his own life story. In other words, the stories, the results of action and speech, reveal an agent, but this agent is not an author or producer. Somebody began it and is its subject in the twofold sense of the word, namely, its actor and sufferer, but nobody is its author. (Arendt, HC, p. 184)
Stories are enacted in the world with others, not authored, they emerge from the lived experiences of human existence, through speaking and acting in the world with others. Stories, unlike propaganda, do not insulate one from reality, but rather confront one with reality. The particularity of stories preclude an all embracing omnipotent narrative that could subsume inconsistencies into a single narrative, and holds open the plurality of human experience that resists universal consistency. There is an inherent contingency in story that distinguishes it from propaganda, as Arendt suggests:
That every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end is the prepolitical and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end. But the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes the storybook of mankind, with many actors and speakers and yet without any tangible authors, is that both are the outcome of action. For the great unknown in history, that has baffled the philosophy of history in the modern age, arises not only when one considers history as a whole and finds that its subject, mankind, is an abstraction which never can become an active agent; the same unknown has baffled political philosophy from its beginning in antiquity and contributed to the general contempt in which philosophers since Plato have held the realm of human affairs. The perplexity is that in any series of events that together form a story with a unique meaning we can at best isolate the agent who set the whole process into motion; and although this agent frequently remains the subject, the ‘hero’ of the story, we never can point unequivocally to him as the author of its eventual outcome. (Arendt, HC, pp. 184-185)
Story is the unauthored ongoing narrative of human plurality. There is no single story written by a single author that provides an omniscient view of history. The meaning of human history is under constant negotiation. This is precisely what the masses cannot accept, and whenever political and economic uncertainty arise it is always possible that movements will form that produce propaganda as a warm overcoat for disenfranchised masses seeking to come in from the cold of reality.