The Psychology of Being Powerless

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.