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The Psychology of Being Powerless

People believe that the great background conditions of modern life are beyond our power to influence. The proliferation of technology is autonomous and cannot be checked. The galloping urbanization is going to gallop on. Our over-centralized administration, both of things and men, is impossibly cumbersome and costly, but we cannot cut it down to size. These are inevitable tendencies of history. More dramatic inevitabilities are the explosions, the scientific explosion, and the population explosion. And there are more literal explosions, the dynamite accumulating in the slums of a thousand cities and the accumulating stockpiles of nuclear bombs in nations great and small. The psychology, in brief, is that history is out of control. It is no longer something that we make but something that happens to us. Politics is not prudent steering in difficult terrain, but it is—and this is the subject of current political science—how to get power and keep power, even though the sphere of effective power is extremely limited and it makes little difference who is in power. The psychology of historical powerlessness is evident in the reporting and the reading of newspapers: there is little analysis of how events are building up, but we read—with excitement, spite, or fatalism, depending on our characters—the headlines of crises for which we are unprepared. Statesmen cope with emergencies, and the climate of emergency is chronic.

I believe myself that some of these historical conditions are not inevitable at all but are the working out of willful policies that aggrandize certain interests and exclude others, that subsidize certain styles and prohibit others. But of course, historically, if almost everybody believes the conditions are inevitable, including the policy-makers who produce them, then they are inevitable. For to cope with emergencies does not mean, then, to support alternative conditions, but further to support and institutionalize the same conditions. Thus, if there are too many cars, we build new highways. If administration is too cumbersome, we build in new levels of administration. If there is a nuclear threat, we develop antimissile missiles. If there is urban crowding and anomie, we aggravate it by stepping up urban renewal and social work. If there are pollution and slums of engineering because of imprudent use of technology, we subsidize Research and Development by the same scientific corporations working for the same ecologically irrelevant motives. If there is youth alienation, we extend and intensify the processing of youth in schools. If the nation-state is outmoded as a political form, we make ourselves into a mightier nation-state.

In this self-proving round, the otherwise innocent style of input-output economies, games-theory strategy, and computerized social science becomes a trap. For the style dumbly accepts the self-proving program and cannot compute what is not mentioned. Individual differences, belief and distrust, history, landscape, the available time, space, and energy of actual people—such things tend to be left out. Then the solutions that emerge ride even more roughshod over what has been left out. Indeed, at least in the social sciences, the more variables one can technically compute, the less likely it is that there will be prior thinking about their relevance to human life. Our classic example—assuming that there will be a future period to which we provide classic examples—is Herman Kahn on Thermonuclear War.

But what is the psychology of feeling that one is powerless to alter basic conditions? What is it as a way of being in the world? Let me list half a dozen kinds of responses to being in a chronic emergency; unfortunately, in America they are exhibited in rather pure form. I say unfortunately, because a pure response to a chronic emergency is a neurotic one; healthy human beings are more experimental or at least muddling. Instead of politics, we now have to talk psychotherapy.

BY DEFINITION, governors cannot forfeit the symbol that everything is under control, though they may not think so. During President Kennedy’s administration, Arthur Schlesinger expressed the problem poignantly by saying “One simply must govern.” The theme of that administration was to be “pragmatic”; but by this they did not mean a philosophical pragmatism, going toward an end in view from where one in fact is and with the means one has; they meant turning busily to each crisis as it arose, so that it was clear that one was not inactive. The criticism of Eisenhower’s administration was that it was stagnant. The new slogan was “get America moving.”

This was rather pathetic; but as the crises have become deeper, the response of the present administration is not pathetic but, frankly, delusional and dangerous. It is to will to be in control, without adjusting to the realities. They seem to imagine that they will in fact buy up every economy, police the world, social-engineer the cities, school the young. In this fantasy they employ a rhetoric of astonishing dissociation between idea and reality, far beyond customary campaign oratory. For example, they proclaim that they are depolluting streams, but they allot no money; forty “demonstration cities” are to be made liable and show the way, but the total sum available is $1.5 billion (John Lindsay says we need $50 billion for New York alone); the depressed area of Appalachia has been reclaimed, but the method is an old highway bill under another name; poor people will run their own programs, but any administrator is fired if he tries to let them do it; they are suing for peace, but they despatch more troops and bombers. This seems to be just lying but, to my ear, it is nearer to magic thinking. The magic buoys up the self-image; the activity is either nothing at all or brute force to make the problem vanish.

In between the ideality and the brutality there occurs a lot of obsessional warding off of confusion by methodical calculations that solve problems in the abstract, in high modern style. A precise decimal is set beyond which the economy will be inflationary, but nobody pays any mind to it. Eighty-seven per cent of low income nations but only 48 per cent of middle income nations have had violent political disturbances. A precise kill-ratio is established beyond which the Vietcong will fold up, but they don’t. Polls are consulted for the consensus, like the liver of sheep, without noticing signs of unrest and even though the administration keeps committing itself to an irreversible course that allows for no choice. And they are everlastingly righteous.

In more insane moments, however, they manufacture history out of the whole cloth, so there is no way of checking up at all. They create incidents in order to exact reprisals; they invent (and legislate about) agitators for demonstrations and riots that are spontaneous; they project bogey-men in order to arm to the teeth. Some of this, to be sure, is cynical, but that does not make it less mad; for, clever or not, they still avoid the glaring realities of world poverty, American isolation, mounting urban costs, mounting anomie, and so forth. I do not think the slogan “The Great Society” is cynical; it is delusional.

Perhaps the epitome of will operating in panic—like a case from a textbook in abnormal psychology—has been the government’s handling of the assassination of John Kennedy. The Warren Commission attempted to “close” the case, to make it not exist in the public mind. Thus it hastily drew firm conclusions from dubious evidence, disregarded counter-evidence, defied physical probalities, and perhaps even accepted manufactured evidence. For a temporary lull it has run the risk of a total collapse of public trust.

COMMON PEOPLE who do not have to govern, can let themselves feel powerless and resign themselves. They respond with the familiar combination of not caring and, as a substitute, identifying with those whom they fancy to be powerful. This occurs differently, however, among the poor and the middle classes.

The poor simply stop trying, become dependent, drop out of school, drop out of sight, become addicts, become lawless. It seems to be a matter of temperature or a small incident whether or not they riot. In anomie circumstances, when people are left out and can’t get in, it is hard to tell when riot or other lawlessness is a political act toward a new set-up and when it is a social pathology. Being powerless as citizens, poor people have little structure of meaning in which to express, or know, what they are after. The concrete objects of their anger make no political sense: They are angry at themselves or their own neighborhoods, at white people passing by, at Jewish landlords and shopkeepers. More symbolic scapegoats like “the capitalist system” or “communism” do not evoke much interest. One has to feel part of a system to share its bogey-men or have a counter-ideology, and by and large the present-day poor are not so much exploited as excluded.

But to fill the void, they admire, and identify with, what is strong and successful, even if—perhaps especially if—it is strong and successful at their own expense. Poor Spanish youth are enthusiastic about our mighty bombs and bombers, though of course they have no interest in the foreign policy that uses them. (If anything, the polls show that poor people are for de-escalation and peace rather than war.) Readers of the Daily News are excited by the dramatic confrontation of statesmen wagging fingers at each other. Negroes in Harlem admire the Cadillacs of their own corrupt politicians and racketeers. Currently there is excitement about the words “Black Power,” but the confusion about the meaning is telling: In the South, where there is little Negro anomie, Black Power has considerable political meaning; in the Northern cities it is a frantic abstraction. Similarly, the contrary word “Integration” makes economic and pedagogic sense if interpreted by people who have some feeling of freedom and power; but if interpreted in an atmosphere of resentful hopelessness it turns into a fight for petty victories or spite, which are not political propositions, though they may be good for the soul.

The anomie of middle-class people, on the other hand, appears rather as their privatism; they retreat to their families and consumer goods where they still have some power and choice. It is always necessary to explain to non-Americans that middle-class Americans are not so foolish and piggish about their Standard of Living as it seems; it is that the Standard of Living has to provide all the achievement and value that are open to them. But it is a strange thing for a society to be proud of its Standard of Living, rather than taking it for granted as a background for worthwhile action.

Privacy is purchased at a terrible price of anxiety, excluding, and pettiness, the need to delete anything different from oneself and to protect things that are not worth protecting. Nor can they be protected; few of the suburban homes down the road, that look so trim, do not have cases of alcoholism, insanity, youngsters on drugs or in jail for good or bad reasons, ulcers, and so forth. In my opinion, middle-class squeamishness and anxiety, a kind of obsessional neurosis, are a much more important cause of segregation than classical race-prejudice which is a kind of paranoia that shows up most among failing classes, bankrupt small property owners, and proletarians under competitive pressure. The squeamishness is worse, for it takes people out of humanity, whereas prejudice is at least passionate. Squeamishness finally undercuts even the fairness and decency that we expect from the middle class.

The identification with power of the powerless middle class is also characteristic. They do not identify with brutality, big men, or wealth, but with the efficient system itself, which is what renders them powerless. And here again we can see the sharp polarity between those who are not politically resigned and those who are. Take the different effects of what is called education. On the one hand, the universities, excellent students and distinguished professors, are the nucleus of opposition to our war policy. On the other hand, in polls of general opinion there is always a dismaying correlation between years of schooling and the “hard line” of bombing China during the Korean War or bombing Hanoi now. But this is not because the educated middle class is rabidly anti-communist, and certainly it is not ferocious; rather, it is precisely because it is rational, it approves the technically efficient solution that does not notice flesh-and-blood suffering. In this style the middle class feels it has status, though no more power than anybody else. No doubt these middle-class people are influenced by the magazines they read, which explain what is efficient; but they are influenced because they are “thinking” types, for whom reality is what they read.

The bathos of the irresponsible middle class is the mighty TV newscast on our national networks. This combines commercials for the high Standard of Living, scenes of war and riot, and judicious pro-and-con commentary on what it all means. The scenes arouse feeling, the commentary provokes thought, the commercials lead to action. It is a total experience.

LET ME ILLUSTRATE the psychology of resignation with another example, for it has come to be accepted as the normal state of feeling rather than as pathological.

During the hearings on Vietnam before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Dodd of Connecticut—who had been mentioned as Lyndon Johnson’s favored choice for Vice-President in 1964—was asked what he thought of the sharp criticism of the government. “It is the price that we pay,” he said, “for living in a free country.” This answer was routine and nobody questioned it. Yet what an astonishing evaluation of the democratic process it is, that free discussion is a weakness we must put up with in order to avoid the evils of another system! To Milton, Spinoza, or Jefferson free discussion was the strength of a society. Their theory was that truth had power, often weak at first but steady and cumulative, and in free debate the right course would emerge and prevail. Nor was there any other method to arrive at truth, since there was no other authority to pronounce it than all the people. Thus, to arrive at wise policy, it was essential for everybody to say his say, and the more disparate the views and searching the criticism the better.

Instead, Senator Dodd seems to have the following epistemology of democracy. We elect an administration and it, through the intelligence service, secret diplomacy, briefings by the Department of Defense and other agencies, comes into inside information that enables it alone to understand the situation. In principle we can repudiate its decisions at the next election, but usually they have led to commitments and actions that are hard to repudiate. Implicit is that there is a permanent group of selfless and wise public servants, experts, and impartial reporters, who understand the technology, strategy, and diplomacy that we cannot understand, and therefore we must perforce do what they advise. To be sure, they continually make bad predictions, and, on the evidence, they are not selfless but partial or at least narrow in their commercial interests and political outlook. Yet this does not alter the picture, for if the President goes along with them, outside criticism is irrelevant anyway and no doubt misses the point, which, it happens, cannot be disclosed for reasons of national security. And surely irrelevant discussion is harmful because it is divisive. But it is the price we pay for living in a free country.

What can be the attraction of such a diluted faith in democracy? It is what is appropriate in a chronic low-grade emergency. In an emergency it is rational, and indeed natural, to concentrate temporary power in a small center, as the ancient Romans appointed dictators, to decide and act, and for the rest of us to support the faits accomplis for better or worse. But since we face a low-grade emergency—nobody is about to invade San Francisco—we like to go on as usual, including sounding off and criticizing, so long as it does not effect policy.

Unfortunately, this psychology keeps the low-grade emergency chronic. There is no way to get back to normal, no check on faits accomplis, no accountability of the decision-makers till so much damage has been done that there is a public revulsion (as after a few years of Korea), or, as seems inevitable, one day a catastrophe. Worst of all there is no way for a philosophic view to emerge that might become effectual. Who would present such a view? In the classical theory of democracy, the electorate is educated by the clashing debate and the best men come forward and gain a following. But in Senator Dodd’s free country, acute men are likely to fall silent, for what is the use of talk that is irrelevant and divisive?

The discussion in the Foreign Relations Committee, excellent as it was, was itself typical of a timid democracy. Not a single Senator was able to insist on basic realities that could put the Vietnam war in a philosophic light and perhaps work out of its dilemmas. (Since then, Senator Fulbright has become more outspoken.) In this context, here are some of the basic realities: In a period of world-wide communications and spread of technology, and therefore of “rising aspirations,” nevertheless a majority of mankind is fast becoming poorer. For our own country, is it really in our national interest to come on as a Great Power, touchy about saving face and telling other people how to act, or else? In the era of One World and the atom bomb, is there not something baroque in the sovereignty of nationstates and legalisms about who aggressed on whom?

It will be objected that such antinational issues can hardly be raised by Senators, even in a free debate. But the same limitation exists outside of government. In the scores of pretentious TV debates and panel discussions on Vietnam during the past two years, I doubt that there have been half a dozen—and these not on national networks—in which a speaker was invited who might conceivably go outside the official parameters and raise the real questions. Almost always the extreme opposition is himself a proponent of power politics, like Hans Morgenthau. (It usually is Hans Morgenthau.) Why not A. J. Muste, for instance? Naturally the big networks would say that there is no use in presenting quixotic opinions that are irrelevant. (The word “quixotic” was used by General Sarnoff of the National Broadcasting Company in his successful bid to Congress to deny to third party candidates equal free time.) By this response, the broadcasters guarantee that the opinions will remain irrelevant, until history, “out of control,” makes them relevant because they were true.

THIS BRINGS ME BACK to my subject, how people are in the world when history is “out of control.” So far I have noticed those who unhistorically will to be in control and those who accept their powerlessness and withdraw. But there is another possibility, apocalypse, not only to accept being powerless but to expect, or perhaps wish and hasten, the inevitable historical explosion. Again there are two variants, for it is usually a different psychology, entailing different behavior, to expect a catastrophe and beat around for what to do for oneself, or to wish for the catastrophe and identify with it.

To expect disaster and desert the sinking ship is not a political act, but it is often a profoundly creative one, both personally and socially. To do it, one must have vitality of one’s own that is not entirely structured and warped by the suicidal system. Going it alone may allow for new development. For instance, when the youth of the Beat movement cut loose from the organized system, opted for voluntary poverty, and invented a morals and culture out of their own guts and some confused literary memories, they exerted a big and, on the whole, good influence. Also, the disposition of the powers-that-be to treat gross realities as irrelevant has driven many intellectual and spirited persons into deviant paths just to make sense of their own experience; thus, at present, perhaps most of the best artists and writers in America are unusually far out of line, even for creative people. They hardly seem to share the common culture, yet they are what culture we have. (According to himself, Dr. Timothy Leary, the psychodelics man, espouses the extreme of this philosophy, “Turn on, tune in, and drop out”; but I doubt that relying on chemicals is really a way of dropping out of our drug-ridden and technological society.)

We must remember that with the atom bombs there is a literal meaning to deserting the ship. This factor is always present in the background of the young. For instance, during the Cuban missile crisis I kept getting phone calls from college students asking if they should at once fly to New Zealand. I tried to calm their anxiety by opining that the crisis was only diplomatic maneuvering, but I now think that I was wrong, for eyewitnesses of behavior in Washington at the time tell me that there was a danger of nuclear war.

More generally, the psychology of apocalypse and the decision to go it alone are characteristic of waves of populism such as we are now surprisingly witnessing in the United States on the streets, in Sproul Hall, at meetings of City Councils, and so forth. The rhetoric of the agrarian populism of the Eighties and Nineties was vividly apocalyptic, and that movement brought forth remarkable feats of cooperation and social invention. The current urban and student populism has begun to produce its own para-institutional enterprises, some of which are viable.

The practice of civil disobedience also must often be interpreted in terms of the psychology of apocalypse, but even sympathetic legal analysts of civil disobedience fail to take this into account. It is one thing to disobey a law because the authorities are in moral error on some point, in order to force a test case and to rally opposition and change the law. It is another thing to disobey authorities who are the Whore of Babylon and the Devil’s thrones and dominions. In such a case the conscientious attitude may be not respect but disregard and disgust, and it may be more moral for God’s creatures to go underground rather than to confront, especially if their theology does not include an article on paradise for martyrs. As a citizen of the uncorrupted polity in exile, it might be one’s civil luty to be apparently lawless. There is a fairly clear-cut distinction between civil disobedience in a legitimate order and revolution that may or may not prove its own legitimacy; but the politics and morality of apocalypse fall in-between and are ambiguous.

QUITE DIFFERENT, finally, is the psychology of those who unconsciously or consciously wish for catastrophe and work to bring it about. (Of course, for the best youth to desert the sinking ship also brings about disaster, by default.) The wish for a blow-up occurs in people who are so enmeshed in a frustrating system that they have no vitality apart from it; and their vitality in it is explosive rage.

Very poor people, who have “the culture of poverty,” as Oscar Lewis calls it, are rarely so. Psychologically committed to a dominant social system that they need its total destruction. They have dreams of heaven but not of hellfire. A few exemplary burnings and beheadings mollify their vengeance. Their intellectual leaders, however, who are verbal and willy-nilly psychologically enmeshed in the hated system, might be more apocalyptic. For instance, Malcolm X once told me—it was before his last period, which was more rational and political—that he would welcome the atom bombing of New York to vindicate Allah, even though it destroyed his own community. James Baldwin is full of hellfire, but I have never heard much of it in popular religion.

On the whole, at present in the United States the psychology of explosive apocalypse is not to be found among rioting Negroes crying “Burn, baby, burn,” nor among utopian beatniks on hallucinogens; it is to be found among people who believe in the system but cannot tolerate the anxiety of its not working out for them. Unfortunately, it is a pretty empty system and anxiety is widespread.

Most obviously there is the large group of people who have been demoted or are threatened with demotion, business-men and small property owners who feel they have been pushed around; victims of inflation; displaced farmers; dissatisfied ex-soldiers; proletarians who have become petty bourgeois but are now threatened by automation or by Negroes invading their neighborhoods. Consciously these people do not want a blow-up but power to restore the good old days; but when they keep losing out, they manifest an astounding violence and vigilantism and could become the usual mass base for fascism. In foreign policy, where imagination has freer rein, they are for preemptive first strikes, bombing China, and so forth. I do not think this group is dangerous in itself—I do not think there is an important Radical Right in the United States—but it is a sounding board to propagate catastrophic ideas to more important groups.

My guess is that, under our bad urban conditions, a more dangerous group is the uncountable number of the mentally ill and psychopathic hoodlums from all kinds of backgrounds. Given the rate of mental disease and the arming and training in violence of hundreds of thousands of young men, there is sure to be an increase of berserk acts that might sometimes amount to a reign of terror, and could create a climate for political enormities. Not to speak of organized Storm Troopers.

THE MOST DANGEROUS group of all, however, is the established but anomic middle class that I described previously. Exclusive, conformist, squeamish, and methodical, it is terribly vulnerable to anxiety. When none of its rational solutions work out, at home or abroad, its patience will wear thin, and then it could coldly support a policy of doom, just to have the problems over with, the way a man counts to three and blows his brains out. But this cold conscious acceptance of a “rational solution” would not be possible if unconsciously there were not a lust for destruction of the constraining system, as sober citizens excitedly watch a house burn down.

The conditions of middle-class life are exquisitely calculated to increase tension and heighten anxiety. It is not so much that the pace is fast—often it consists of waiting around and is slow and boring—but that it is somebody else’s pace or schedule. One is continually interrupted. And the tension cannot be normally discharged by decisive action and doing things one’s own way. There is competitive pressure to act a role, yet paradoxically one is rarely allowed to do one’s best or use one’s best judgment. Proofs of success or failure are not tangibly given in the task, but always in some superior’s judgment. Spontaneity and instinct are likely to be gravely penalized, yet one is supposed to be creative and sexual on demand. All this is what Freud called civilization and its discontents. Wilhelm Reich showed that this kind of anxiety led to dreams of destruction, self-destruction, and explosion, in order to release tension, feel something, and feel free.

A chronic low-grade emergency is not psychologically static. It builds up to and invites a critical emergency. But just as we are able to overlook glaring economic and ecological realities, so in our social engineering and system of education glaring psychological realities like anomie and anxiety are regarded almost as if they did not exist.

The psychological climate explains, I think, the peculiar attitude of the Americans toward the escalation of the Vietnam war. (At the time I am writing this, more bombs are being rained on that little country than on Germany at the peak of World War II, and there is talk of sending nearly a million men.) The government’s statements of purpose are inconsistent week by week and are belied by its actions. Its predictions are ludicrously falsified by what happens. Field commanders lie and are contradicted by the next day’s news. Yet a good majority continues to acquiesce with a paralyzed fascination. This paralysis is not indifference, for finally people talk about nothing else. One has the impression that it is an exciting attraction of a policy that it is doomed.


Being Powerless December 15, 1966

Being Powerless December 15, 1966

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