The following essay of mine originally appeared as:
The Imprisoned American Mind
2 August 2004
It is reprinted here without change. If you substitute “Donald Trump” for “George W. Bush,” “Hillary Clinton” for “John Kerry,” and “Bernie Sanders” for “Ralph Nader,” then you will easily find this essay “up to the minute.” Enjoy (or bemoan).
The Imprisoned American Mind
“Resistance to the organized mass can be effected only by the man who is as well organized in his individuality as the mass itself.”
—C. G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self, 1957
“I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue.”
—George Orwell, “Can Socialists Be Happy?”, 24 December 1943
Can an awareness of political reality be re-awakened in the American public mind? How do we produce this Second American Revolution?
The Perfect Prison Of The Unused Mind
If some great power were to grasp the molten magnetic generator at the core of the Earth, and twist it so the field now pointed with magnetic north emanating from Ecuador and magnetic south from Sumatra, then all the compasses on the planet would point differently, and all our systems of navigation would have to change.
The psychological relationship of each individual to the whole of society is similar to that of each compass to the planetary magnetic field. Our personal compass helps us align ourselves with the norms of society, with “good” and “evil,” and with our own conscience. When our psychic compass is broken, we are psychotic — our contact with reality is very seriously impaired.
Imagine a group of psychotics, one possibility being the inmates at an insane asylum. This would be an accumulation of individuals with broken psychic compasses confined in a protected environment that is managed by people with excellent psychic compasses, who are intent to help. Such a scene would speak well of a larger enlightened society.
But there is another possibility. The society could be deviant, its psychic “field” twisted and misdirected so its norms are skewed from what is easily understood — outside of this society — to be decent and humane. In such an aberrant society, the governing psychic field can easily orient the compasses of individuals who do not have their own independent source — or frame — of reference. Such individuals, placid in their continuity within the social norms of their group, are members of a mass psychosis.
The American prison guards in the Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad were normal people fully adapted to their mass psychosis. Adolph Eichmann, a senior executive in the Nazi SS bureaucracy managing the industrial-scale death camp industry, was an individual proven by psychological testing to be normal and sane, and he too was a fully adapted member of a mass psychosis.
An individual inoculates himself from being infected by mass psychoses by developing a capacity for critical thought, an understanding of human nature and the reality of his own personality, by consciously working to improve and maintain his character, and by developing connections to sources of insight and compassionate awareness (religion can be one such example). This requires continuing mental effort over one’s lifetime.
Minds that remain largely unused because of ignorance, which is the child of laziness, will be found by mass media (“propaganda,” in the old days), filled with easily swallowed psychic worms that are coated with syrupy sweet sex, glistening cherry-red violence, desire-fulfillment fantasy, voyeurism, and lowest-common-denominator semi-pornographic mass culture. Once embedded, the underlying psychic messages re-program the thought patterns of the consuming individual for ease of remote control by the social programming elite.
If you don’t think, someone will do it for you, but not for your benefit.
The psychology of mass psychosis is how small groups of wealthy elites control larger populations. It may seem easy to look back on Hitler and the Nazi’s control of the German people and say “not me, not today.” But any truthful look at American politics would have to conclude that amazing progress has been made in the techniques of social control. Just look at how Americans so overwhelmingly volunteer to impoverish themselves, their society, their children’s future, even the very planet they live on — perhaps irreparably, all for the unique purpose of increasing the moneyed wealth of the moneyed class.
Control of a mass psychosis is the ultimate pyramid scheme. Political dictators seek to become cult deities, and economic elites seek to become admired nobilities by the combined labor and sacrifice of the enthralled proletariat, as well as by their delusional worship. A political revolution to free the serfs, the servants and the workers will have to overcome or bypass not only the physical and economic power of the state, but also the psychological power of a crypto-religious mythos that has been backfilled into the intellectual and spiritual void of an unthinking populace. And the people will resist the toppling of their idols, they will resist their own liberation, they will resist doing the mental work necessary to stay free.
Imagine the reaction to telling people “patriotism is psychotic.”
We are already brainwashed, and it is permanent. We are all conditioned, much as Aldous Huxley describes in his novel Brave New World. By high school, we are largely indoctrinated and imprinted with our attitudes and allegiances, and it is the rare individual who can overcome their silly embarrassment and their mental laziness to actually and overtly change their mind. Thought is effort, and this is contrary to being happy (remember “pursuit of happiness”?) because in minds trained for consumption, effort is work and work is unhappiness, and because achieving knowledge usually makes you angry at the follies and chicanery being committed under the cover of public ignorance — a socialist’s fundamental problem; read George Orwell’s essay “Can Socialists Be Happy?”
Most people are really of quite simple mind. They imagine that how they think (which is to say, not thinking much at all) is somehow an essential core of who they are — their self definition, their personality. Thus, confronting some comfortable, church-going Republican with vigorous calls to turn away from their party during the upcoming election is tantamount to asking them — from their frame of reference — to self-negate, to not be, to act and think as they “can’t” and as their anti-selves would act. You are asking someone to wrench free from their mass psychosis.
In the spirit of psychotic bipartisanship, let me note that the previous example can be inverted, to that of a conservative Republican importuning a brainwashed godless communist to betray his allegiances. However, the relevant situation for Americans is of witless popular allegiance to the Republican-championed mass psychosis combining corporate capitalist penuriousness and intolerant religiosity.
People who support George W. Bush (for example) are not swayed by ANY logical argument or observable fact (such as the false justification for the Iraq War, and no end to terrorism as a result). They vote to maintain the primacy of their self-image — reflected by Bush and conservative Republicanism — in American political and FINANCIAL affairs, the latter being the actual totality of concern. A voter votes for the “me”-reflector to be in charge. No logical or moral argument can ever counteract that.
This accounts for the intransigence of the Naderites and other US leftists who feel pushed out of electoral politics. No me-reflector of theirs is even permitted to get on the same national stage. Despite all the angry self-righteousness of Democrats who imagine they own all leftist votes just because Bush and the Republicans own rightist votes, they still do not mount me-reflectors for the leftists they would exploit, and Nader is running to protest this injustice.
On voting for “me,” see the work of George Lakoff, a linguist who describes how political debate is “framed” to limit the possibilities of discussion, and to resonate with the self image of a target audience the framers wish to co-opt. “Framing,” as Lakoff describes it is the control language of mass psychosis.
In many ways, the rivalry between Republicans and Democrats is a battle to control the mass psychosis of American socio-political placidity. The insurgency of Ralph Nader and the Green Party is an attack on the psychosis itself. The fond hope of the insurgents is that the inevitable bite of reality (weak economy, outsourcing, healthcare insecurity, withdrawal of social services, the price of imperialism and war) prods political movement to the left within the body of the mass psychosis, so it transfers control to Kerry and the Democrats, and then continues to build leftward momentum as conservative delusions fall before a widening awareness of political reality. Then the real revolution has a chance to break through popular conservative narcolepsy and challenge the hold of corporate imperialism over American politics. Of such stuff are dreams made of.
I think only external physical factors can influence Americans to do the mental and moral work needed to change their fundamental political perspectives — to drop the psychoses. I’m thinking of undeniable forces of change, like abrupt climate change leading to catastrophic social collapse, or thermonuclear war — possibly a civil war (a Yugoslavia style disintegration with nuclear strikes), or sudden and permanent loss of petroleum, or some combination of all three.
Since it took the Red Army to convince Germany to abandon Nazism (NATO forces helped in Western Europe); and close to total destruction in Japan — including the incineration of many of its inhabited cities by aerial bombardment — to convince the Japanese to abandon their military imperialism, I do not think it exaggerated to suggest that Americans might need an equally calamitous Armageddon to cause a reorientation of their politics.
Reorientation without the Armageddon? A beautiful wish, but not a logical one.
On The Articles
Ritt Goldstein describes the current American psychosis in terms of Erich Fromm’s concept of “socially patterned defects”, and R. D. Laing’s concept of “social-fantasy systems.” C. G. Jung, a co-founder of modern Western psychology, used the term “mass psychosis” to describe what second generation pychologists Fromm and Laing were describing in their own more elaborate terms. Like Jung, both Fromm and Laing witnessed the horrible mass psychoses of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and their theoretical work tried to make sense of these experiences. Goldstein describes how the insights of Fromm and Laing are being used to understand the psychology (or psychosis) of political thought within the Bush administration today. Insights of this sort can be used either to promote the work of 21st century equivalents of Josef Goebbels, or to undermine the effectiveness of such propaganda — depending on who is paying attention and who is not. Goldstein reminds us of Fromm’s warning for the United States in 1941,
There is no greater mistake and no graver danger than not to see that in our own society we are faced with the same phenomenon that is fertile soil for the rise of fascism anywhere.
Thomas Frank describes how the Democratic Party dropped the language of class warfare, and essentially abandoned unionism and the working class during the last thirty years, in an effort to win over corporate support and reflect the culture of affluent suburban professionals. In doing so, it opened the way for corporate-funded propagandists to craft a mass psychosis for social control of the working class. The success of this Republican-led effort is evident in states like Kansas, where self-inflicted impoverishment has left outcrops of affluence amidst a flatland of working class bitterness. The malevolent genius of the mass psychosis is evident in Frank’s probing conclusion,
Why shouldn’t our culture just get worse and worse, if making it worse will only cause the people who worsen it to grow wealthier and wealthier?
Kevin Phillips was the architect of Richard Nixon’s 1968 winning “southern strategy,” and as such has a keen eye for the fissures and fault lines within conservative politics. Like Frank and Lakoff, he too sees opportunities for leftward movement of the electorate by re igniting the class war (which, of course, conservative corporatists engage in continuously under the cover of the mass psychosis) and reframing it in Lakoffian language. In particular, he recommends Democrats engage in “Deconstructing the Republican coalition,” as this “is a better long-term bet, and could be done.” Though disenchanted with George W. Bush’s brand of Republicanism, Phillips is not yet a Naderite, and he notes the immediate danger of his own recommendation were Kerry to lose control of the electorate during this delicate transition, “The result, however, might be to uncage serious progressive reform.” Note the word “uncage.”
The conservative working class of Frank is the Republican “unbase” of Phillips, which he describes as
the 20-25 percent of the party electorate that has been won at various points by three national anti-Bush primary and general election candidates with Republican origins: Ross Perot (1992), John McCain (2000) and, in a lesser vein, Patrick Buchanan (1992). Most of the shared Perot-McCain issues – campaign and election reform, opposition to the religious right, distaste for Washington lobbyists, opposition to upper-bracket tax biases and runaway deficits, criticism of corporations and CEOs – are salient today and more compatible with the mainstream moderate reformist Democratic viewpoint than with the lobbyist driven Bush Administration. Perot and Buchanan’s economic nationalism (anti-outsourcing, anti-NAFTA) and criticism of Iraq policy under the two Bushes is also shared by many Democrats.
George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley; an expert in “framing,” a communications ploy that defines the terms of debate, or defines a “frame” confining the extent of ideas available to influence a discussion. Republicans are masters of framing. As described by Orwell in his book 1984, the fundamental purpose of controlling the use of language (keeping discussion within a frame) is to limit the scope of thought; this is essential to social control. When you respond to an argument by using the terms defined by the framers, you have already lost. Lakoff uses the example of “tax relief,” used by Republicans to insinuate that taxes are an inherent affliction. Lakoff suggests that Democrats (and any opponents of the Republicans) counter the “tax relief” excuse of relieving affliction, as a cover for enriching the wealthy, by discussing the “dues” we owe as a patriotic duty to support freedom, democracy, and the American way. In Lakoff’s words,
I would say taxes are what you pay to be an American, to live in this country with democracy, with opportunity, and especially with the enormous infrastructure paid for by previous taxpayers — infrastructure like schools and roads and the Internet, the stock market, the Securities and Exchange Commission, our court system, our scientific establishment, which is largely supported by federal money. Vast amounts of important, marvelous infrastructure: all of these things were paid for by taxpayers. They paid their dues. They paid their fair share to be Americans and maintain that infrastructure. And if you don’t pay your fair share, then you’re turning your back on your country.
Lakoff helped start the Rockridge Institute, whose mission is to “reframe the terms of political debate to make a progressive moral vision more persuasive and influential.”
Scripting The Revolution
Psychologists have described how the human mind can literally be confined in the virtual prison of a psychosis, and how repetition by authority figures, as well as control of frames of reference (social, moral, psychological, linguistic) can channel naive individual thought into dependable compliance within a mass psychosis. This situation affects the majority of Americans, and it is prudent to assume that you and I are among those so influenced. Because unreality is unreal, the attempt to maintain it in the face of reality builds up stress. Being psychotic is like running around with your eyes closed; sometimes you get headaches from running into telephone poles. Nine-Eleven was one such pole.
Thomas Frank is a witness to this social stress among the psychotic faithful, while Kevin Phillips speculates on the political potentialities of this disaffection, and George Lakoff describes how a new control language can be devised to tap this stress and channel it into unidirectional political momentum.
The natives are restless. Perhaps the incantations of old, sung in a new way, will move them.
Those who would be social revolutionaries, and dream of America as a Green Socialist Paradise, would do well to understand the imprisoned American mind, its popular culture and the techniques used to control it. These are the keys to revolution. Understand that freeing this mind is only the first step. Once freed, where it chooses to go is uncertain. Acceptance of this uncertainty is the sign that self-declared liberators are authentic.
And how is the revolution to be implemented? That is a topic for a future article.
References, in Topical Groups
(all web-links active as of 24 July 2004)
Carl Gustav Jung, The Undiscovered Self, Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown Books, 1957 & 1958, Library of Congress #58-7854
Ritt Goldstein, “U.S.: Patriotic Pride and Fear,” Asia Times, 08 July 2004
Manuel García, Jr., “American Gulag, And A Dogfight Of Psychoses,” Swans, 24 May 2004, http://www.swans.com/library/art10/mgarci14.html
American Will Confined by Conservatism
George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute,
“Inside the Frame” (on George Lakoff), 15 January 2004,
Thomas Frank, “Red-State America Against Itself,” Tom Dispatch, 16 July 2004
Kevin Phillips, “How Kerry Can Win,” The Nation, 15 July 2004,
“Propaganda: Then and Now”
12 November 2001