Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Inevitability of Oppression

“Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. In almost every act of our lives whether in the sphere of politics or business in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”  -Edward Bernays in Propaganda (1928)
After the fascist experiments in both Italy and Germany were dismantled with the Second World War, the youth of the West became hypersensitive to any form of government and corporate control. The mood of the time was captured brilliantly by author Stefan Aust in his best-selling, nonfiction book  Der Baader Meinhof Komplex. The story, later made into a compelling film of the same title, describes the sensitivity and commitment with which the youth of 1960s  Europe took in ensuring that a fascist police state would not reemerge. Paradoxically, the movement itself became a tyrannical threat to personal freedom.
During and after the Nazi sentiment was gripping Germany, exiled intellectuals were attempting to crack the nut that held together just what it was that had brought about such an outrageous situation. Most of these intellectuals were from Jewish lineage, however, nearly none of them considered themselves believing Jews, and most of them were atheists. Their interest and commitment was primarily of a human empathy for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the victims of brutal atrocity. Amongst those who took up, in exile, the task of understanding just what was happening in Europe included Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Eric Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Emmanuel Levinas, and Walter Benjamin. In fact, most of lifephilosophy in the continental tradition -from existentialism to postmodernism- is an outgrowth of the events of the 1930s and 1940s.
One of those exiled intellectuals, Kurt Lewin, followed the initial fascination with how the form of government, namely autocratic fascism, shaped the events that were unfolding in Europe. In 1939 Lewin began a series of leadership style experiments that examined the behavior of children under the structures of either laissez-faire, democratic, or fascist classroom structure. What Lewin found was that students who were instructed in a fascist structure performed the most efficiently and produced the best products, but were also more likely to demonstrate resentfulness, paranoia, and automaton conformity -loss of a sense of individuality and following the crowd.
Some thirty years later Diana Baumrind proposed a parenting theory that is curiously similar to Lewin’s leadership style studies -a model that every psychology student in America learns, and nearly all family therapist profess. This parenting styles model examined three parenting methods (authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive). What Baumrind’s research found was that middle class children, of European-American descent, are best adjusted when raised in the authoritative model (the democratic style in Lewin’s study). However, who are those that are praised in American culture as the accomplished academics, scientists, musicians, and engineers? American children of Asian and Indian families consistently lead the pack in all areas of academic performance. The parenting style of these families, as is pointed out by Judith Rich Harris in her book The Nurture Assumption, is authoritarian. What we find is that a governing, teaching, or parenting style that is highly directive, rigidly structured, and favors conservative life practices produces the highest performing human beings. Whether we look at test scores in math and science, automobile quality, or technological superiority, we find that the celebrated cultures are nearly always structured in an authoritarian model.
 This character is seen most often today in the self-righteous hybrid driver, or the punitive religious authority who lives behind the mask of false humility -the true taking in vain of a god’s name.
This kind of personality research soon took over as the primary way of understanding how fascism gripped Europe. It began with Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism which described a direct link between sexual repression and sadomasochistic personality style (one in which weakness is viewed as inferiority that deserves punishment). This form of sadomasochism, Reich, Fromm, and many others described, is not the fetishized sexual sadomasochism, but rather the moral sadomasochism that we find today in the attitude of religious, political, and ecological fanatics. This character is seen most often today in the self-righteous hybrid driver, or the punitive religious authority who lives behind the mask of false humility -the true taking in vain of a god’s name.
The link is this; there are some very human emotional needs that are common to us all. These needs can be denied, hidden, or renounced by the individual (for many defensive reasons) but science, philosophy, spirituality, art, and sociology all tell us the same thing -there are basic human emotional needs. Erich Fromm outlined six of these needs, which I feel all serve one basic need. This need is of basic security, safety, and control.
The opening text of the Pentateuch delivers a wisdom that can be seen as the most important lesson for humanity. This lesson, found in the story of the fall from grace in the garden, is that of constant awareness of the human tendency for power, control, and safety. As the story goes, humans rebelled against a power structure that imposed a rule. The rule is irrelevant, the lesson is clear: comfort and safety at the price of autonomy leads to a desire for power. Power is a mechanism for achieving a basic sense of safety, autonomy, and control.
Alice Miller, the Polish born, Swiss psychoanalyst has shown us how resentment towards our parents is inevitable, and that we are shackled to an unavoidable guilt that will always manifest at our actions towards autonomy. In this way, the dual feelings of safety and resentment exist not only towards our parents, but also our employer, government, and our belief system. The issue is what Freud referred to as ambivalence.
In the 1960s folks gained hypersensitivity to the potential control of dominant power structures: the capitalists, the imperialists, the communists, the socialists each saw the other as a threat to their autonomy and freedom.
Political, academic, and parental authoritarianism is easy to spot. The first few generations out of the political totalitarianism of 20th century Europe had sensitivity and an awareness that limited freedom in its own way. The interesting quality of power and tyranny is that it is not a product of any one form of government or economic system; it is, rather, a human quality that will appear in any system. In fact the very act of attempting to set rules to control it, becomes, ultimately, an act of oppression.
It was not long before the awareness of this striving for control, became popularized by writers of the time including Marcuse and Fromm, Foucault, Chomsky, Zinn, as well as, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. This thinking extended beyond the idea that authoritarianism was a quality of a political or economic system, or a social or parenting style, to the understanding that it is, in fact, a human condition. Every ideology has the potential, no, the destiny, of becoming tyrannical.
It is an unfortunate truth that there is no system, ideology, belief, or lebensphilosphie that is immune tyranny. Political, religious, social scientific, and artists argue their own beliefs. Those who fight against oppression and fascism become oppressive fascist in doing so. Those who propose a clearly stated fascism or rigidly conservative code of morality, education, economy, or politics are oppressive.
Some systems glorify the idea of voluntary submission. This is true for of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic  systems and of  political fascist parties. These are both systems of belief that prize and celebrate submission to an authority. Both of these theories profess that it is an adherent’s duty to submit; one can be fulfilled only through, spiritual or political submission (the first to the will of god, the second to the will of the leader). It is also the case, at least in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions that one can submit to an authoritative god because one understands and wishes to control the human tendency towards power. When an individual, either through doctrine or personal conviction, acts on the belief that it is their duty to teach others the benefits of their submission, or they feel a sense of entitlement or superiority to others because of their submission, they become oppressive tyrants. The moment that voluntary submission, as found in both of these systems, becomes tyranny is when the submission is no longer voluntary -when someone makes the decision to force their will upon another.
There is a certain comfort that is acquired in submission. Erich Fromm has described a type of person whose tendency it is to achieve a sense of belongingness (one of the six basic emotional needs) and safety through submission to others and to a culture. When one loses oneself in social life, dressing as one should, acting as one should, and following the social norms as one should, one gains not only a sense of belongingness, but also a sense of safety. Like the chameleon, Fromm says, the automaton conformist becomes just like everyone else and, in this way, does not stand out as a target.
Similarly, the sadistic personality achieves a sense of safety by controlling others, whereas the masochistic personality gets a sense of safety from being controlled or parented by others. “Submissiveness,” says Fromm, “assuages their feelings of aloneness.” Psychoanalyst David Shapiro tells us that even self-criticism is a form of control,  an “I’ll hit me before you can,” type of defense.
The inevitability of tyranny is found in all human action and is not limited to those most obvious instances in religion and politics. In fact, it is most obvious and expected when speaking of political fascism and religious zealotry. What the thinkers of the twentieth century described is a fascism that is unseen, or as the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, described the invisible government.
The necessary tendency towards tyranny is not as obvious in other systems as it is in the fascist system of government or the fundamentalist systems of religion. Its inevitable manifestation is, though, present in every structure. The system (or lack of) might serve as a rapid incubator or an antiseptic forestaller that prolongs the onset, but, nevertheless, it is an unavoidable outcome. The ambivalence of the sadomasochistic drive, that Sigmund Freud found so essential to the human experience, is its simultaneous desire to submit and dominate.
There are certain situations in which a frequent and continuous change of government can forestall certain kinds of oppression, as we find in the modern Italian system of the parliamentary constitutional republic. Even in the most democratic of constitutional systems, however, the constitution can itself become a demagogic ideology to which its worshipers submit. This type of submission is found to today in American political movements like the Tea Party. Even a dogmatically rigid worship of a constitution will inevitably become rotten with the stench of oppression.