Translated by Stacco Troncoso, edited by Ann Marie Utratel
Lately, we’ve been talking about the techniques of manipulation used by the government and mass media, regarding the privatization of public education, and all public benefits.
In these first months of legislature, the better part of this manipulation has been aimed at rendering us into a state of shock, after which, intimidated and paralyzed, we would not react against the losses of rights brutally imposed on us. The measures, announcements and declarations of the autonomic and central governments are meted out to us day by day, gradually, like a poisonous drip of constant anxiety. Relentlessly, the media – in some cases, better to say “propagandists” – continues their tireless preaching, like a disheartening echo of bad news from on high (from the council of ministers or the rating agencies).
Naomi Klein explains in her book, “The Shock Doctrine”, how neo-liberalism, unable to convince people by means of argument (since these neo-liberal measures are essentially anti-people), has only been able to impose itself via coups d’etat, declarations of war, situations of catastrophic natural disaster, or other traumatic phenomena, leaving the public in the grip of anxiety and fear.
And what, if not fear, are they trying to inoculate us with in this country? Fear of losing our jobs, for example, or of never again being able to find work, or of being offered nothing more than exploitation, plain and simple; fear of losing the right to healthcare,l or being unable to provide adequate education for children; fear of ending up foreclosure victims, sleeping on the street; fear, finally, of being unjustly arrested for peacefully protesting at a demonstration.
In this article, we examine how the shock doctrine takes effect on us under the name “learned helplessness”. But also, how we can escape this state of despondency if we learn to correctly attribute the causes of our malaise.
Learned Helplessness, a weapon of mass destruction
It’s true enough that the powers that be treat us like dogs, or at least like the dogs in Seligman’s experiment.
At the end of the Sixties, psychologist Martin Seligman carried out the following experiment. Inside a lab cage, a dog was exposed to a series of unavoidable electric shocks. Meanwhile, in a different cage, another dog would be able to interrupt these shocks by pressing a lever. Later, both dogs would be situated over an electrified surface from which they could escape by simply jumping over a barrier. The dog that had been able to control the electric shocks would jump the barrier, while the other dog, instead of looking for a successful exit from an adverse situation, stayed, passively bearing the shocks. This dog had “learned” his helplessness. Why waste the energy trying to escape from the negative stimuli when you know (really, more like believe) that you can’t?
Learned helplessness leads to depression. Not doing anything, because you think it’s all useless.
In the following video, we see a teacher inducing learned helplessness on a group of students through a simple activity.
From this we can infer that, given the current power of media propaganda, it’s feasible to induce a state of depression in large sectors of the population. Thanks to this video, it’s easier to understand why the victims of Nazi Germany accepted their deaths with little resistance, in much the same way that abused women often accept their fate with resignation:
To activate English subtitles, press captions button at the lower right
It’s terrible, isn’t it? But not as terrible as realizing that this inoculation by way of learned helplessness is, precisely, what’s being done to us. Right now. They’re trying to convince us to passively accept the loss of our rights and the privatization of public services with no resistance or protest. The slogan is: it’s useless no matter what we do.
We, like the dogs in Seligman’s experiments, are submitted to shocks, better known by their euphemisms “adjustments” or “cuts”. These shocks are apparently unavoidable, no matter how many times we go on strike, take part in informative actions or protests. Furthermore, many protesters become victims of unjustified arrests and preemptive prison sentences, hardly compatible with fundamental human rights.
Greece, which has suffered this commons-stripping for far longer, has seen depression spread like wildfire among the people. The suicide rate has skyrocketed. In his article entitled “¿Y si no hiciésemos nada?” (And what if we didn’t do anything?), philosopher Amador Fernández-Savater echoes this desperation that has taken hold of the Greeks.
More than 10 general strikes in Greece, but has anything been achieved? Alexandra-Odette Kypriotaki has taken part in the movement since 2008, only to move to London with that very question in mind. “In my country, you can’t even find a job as a waitress”, she told me. I met her in a meeting organised by thinker-activist Franco Berardi (Bifo) in Barcelona. Her presentation there was as evocative as it was challenging.
Reflecting on the underlying logic of conflict and protest, both impotent in preventing social devastation, repression and destruction, Alexandra proposed a new start from a different angle. “Neither fighting nor confronting, but deserting; neither demanding nor pleading, but unfolding, here and now, the world we want to live in. Neither taking action nor mobilising, but giving ourselves over to abandon. Turning our weakness into strength.”
Capitalism demands from us a constant disposition towards desire, contact, production. Where time is permanently occupied and under pressure to deliver results. Nowadays, being happy, optimistic and positive is obligatory. We must constantly project the image of knowing what’s up, that everything is going fine, it’s all under control, and we’re strong. But, doesn’t political activism often demand the same? Struggle, results, a ready answer for everything, constant high morale, rejection of the meek, doubtful and melancholic…
Couldn’t we muster up an army of the weak, the clumsy, the ignorant? The rallying cry could be, “Yes, we’re depressed, so what?” The program: “I don’t know”. The strike, doing absolutely nothing, not even mobilising ourselves. Do nothing day… Wednesday, then Thursday and so on.”
The figure of the helpless punisher
Arbitrary electric shocks, administered at regular intervals and beyond our control. Shocks, or the looting they call “cuts” or “deficit control”. Psychological abuse, bordering on the limits of, what just a few months ago, would have seemed like dystopian fiction: “IMF Requests That Pensions be Lowered Because of “The Risk That People Will Live Longer Than Expected”.
Rating agencies, international organisms (IMF, WB, OECD, WTO) in service to the financial elite, the European commission and the ECB… they all subject us to a series of demands and adjustments, gradual though inexorable. Of course, we are assured there is nothing we can do. On the other hand, cases like Iceland are silenced in the mass media.
What is the role of our leaders in this situation? Simply, to be efficient executors of this pillage ordered “from above”. “We have to do what we have to do”; “The European Union demands it from us”; “We must increase confidence in the markets”, etc.
There’s no point labelling the politicians who carry out these tasks as “evil” or “sadistic”, although it’s often tempting, given some of their statements. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt expressed her concept of the banality of evil: a mediocre Nazi civil servant like Adolf Eichmann was perfectly able to perform mass murders, not out of cruelty, but simply because he acted from within the rules of the system he belonged to, without reflecting on his acts. What Eichmann did was expertly carry out orders given from superiors, just as politicians in government do with the mandates of those representing the interests of financial capital. And they are unable to question the rules they follow, having been blinded by the tenets of the dominant ideology, neo-liberalism, which additionally legitimises the fact that these same leaders – or their friends and family – profit from it in ways which we would consider immoral, thanks to the loss of social rights of the citizenry and the privatization of the public sector.
Adding insult to injury, the government can even present itself to public opinion as mere victims of learned helplessness. This is typified by phrases like “I’d like to do something else, but I can’t do anything; the orders come from above. If I acted differently, the consequences would be much worse”. These selfsame heads of state become public models for learned helplessness. And, as we well know, the best way to lead is by example. This was the case when former Spanish president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was called by Barack Obama. But now, with our current president, Mariano Rajoy, this phenomenon has been so exacerbated that he himself has become a living example of helplessness and weakness, with his cheat sheets at public appearances, his absences, his gestures and actions. Here we see him in the Senate, running away from journalists eager to ask him about the latest budget cuts in education and healthcare:
In conclusion, what these politicians are showing us by “playing helpless” is that our country is no longer sovereign, but subject to the orders of those truly in charge: the famous “markets”. So why not be honest and consistent, and simply resign, and let Spain become a protectorate of financial capital just like Italy and Greece? Perhaps our role within the shock doctrine has not yet been totally fulfilled. We’re still not fully subject to learned helplessness. But how can we prevent it from defeating us completely?
Better living through attribution
To fend off learned helplessness, Seligman applies Fritz Heider’s attribution theory. In Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, he studies three dimensions or characteristics of the attributional style, also called causal attribution:
- Personalisation: whereby internal or external causes are attributed to good or bad events. Either I feel guilty when I do something wrong “because that’s the way I am”, or I’m able to externalise the problem and hold myself responsible for making changes. This dimension is related to self-esteem. Attributing bad events to external causes increases immunity to learned helplessness.
- Permanence: the duration, stability or instability in time which we attribute the causes underlying good or bad events. Extreme examples are expressed through discourse in the always – never poles. Thinking that the causes behind bad events are stable, permanent or even definitive, makes us more vulnerable to learned helplessness.
- Penetration: how many areas in our lives are affected by our good or bad luck, whether these causes affect us globally or specifically. Expressed through discourse in the all-nothing extremes.
On the other hand, in their paper on learned helplessness and its immunisation in human subjects, José Ramón Yela Bernabé and José Luis Marcos Malmierca also refer to the importance of our controllability of events.
1) Depersonalisation: the problem lies in the situation, not within us
Another strategy used by the powers that be to trigger learned helplessness is encouraging us to blame ourselves for what is happening. We’re told that we’ve “lived beyond our means”, when in reality, the means allowed to those at the bottom were well below the standards of a decent life, as evidenced by low wages and the lack of basic resources such as housing.
Geographer David Harvey offers his systemic explanation for what is happening. According to him, we’re living through a process of accumulation by dispossession. With the fall in wages since the 70s, increases in profits are being absorbed by the capitalist class due to the privatization of common goods, the financialization of the economy, the management and manipulation of the crisis, and the uneven redistribution of resources. The author gives an overview of the current crisis in the following video:
Authors such as Vicenç Navarro have pointed out that the lack of resources amongst popular classes has provoked rising debt levels, and not the other way around. Had we enjoyed a public policy defending universal access to decent housing, people wouldn’t have gone into such levels of debt, and the housing and credit bubbles that led to the crisis never would have occurred.
So, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that the blame for this “crisis” (accumulation by dispossession) is ours. We must get beyond the mass media information overload, and analyse the underlying causes of the current social, economic and cultural model so we can help mitigate the harmful effects, and even propose new and different alternative models.
2) The crisis is also a crisis of the dominant economic paradigm
Regarding the stability of the source of our problem, we must ask ourselves: can this accumulation by dispossession go on forever? Are we now at the endpoint of history? Far from it. Many have pointed out that we are living through a global crisis in capitalism owing to ecological limits which impede the model of infinite accumulation and growth. The late Spanish ecologist Ramón Fernández Durán has, like many others, indicated that the predictable depletion of fossil fuels will lead to the collapse of our civilisation.
The documentary “The Story of Stuff” does a fine job of describing the human and ecological limits of the current mode of production:
So, instead of worrying about what’s happening, shouldn’t we be looking for alternatives already?
3) Opportunities for emancipation
Regarding the penetration of the problem; is our entire being negatively affected by this pillaging of the Commons?
While the crisis/scam is undoubtedly affecting a good portion of our lives, due to unemployment, ever worsening public services and the loss of human rights, it’s also worth remembering that there is life – a lot of life – beyond the crisis.
Now is the time to explore new ways of relating to ourselves, to others and to our environment. The time to look for new modes of life.
This economic model, even at its peak, was still the cause of dissatisfaction. Beneath the surface of consumerism, mutated into a pyramid scheme thanks to the abundance of easy credit, lurked a modern version of King Midas. Everything touched by the model was converted into goods, right down to our lives and the most intimate corners of our minds.
Alienation has never reached such extremes. While in the times of Fordism and mass production, the worker was alienated during his or her work time; nowadays, capital extracts profits from the totality of our lives.
The Commons, that which we all share, is what’s being “expropriated” by some, the 1% of the population, to keep on accumulating capital. Advertising appropriates our common culture to invade our brains with consumer programming. We relate to others under the criteria informed by rentability, and we ourselves become merchandise to be sold off in the labour market or when we try to draw benefits in our personal lives.
The part of our lives affected by the crisis is, therefore, miniscule compared with everything that this crisis of the system can offer us:
The best way to increase happiness is through interpersonal relationships. Fostering cooperative relationships instead of those based on competition. All that’s given shall not be lost.
Not allowing cognitive creation (our thoughts, arts, and knowledge) to be expropriated from the common intellect by means of so-called intellectual property; an illegitimate appropriation that answers to the interests of big corporations dedicated to the production and distribution of cultural and technological products.
The promotion of commons-based economy, where instead of rentability, value resides in a model of cooperative enterprises dedicated to improving both society and the environment.
Ending the predominance of financial economy over productive economy. Overcoming the scam that is the private issue of money as debt which enslaves persons and peoples through its mechanisms.
Rallying for initiatives such as basic income, so that people may work freely, and not be forced to work for subsistence. Natural resources are a common good.
And, to complement this basic income, why not propose — as F.D. Roosevelt did in his day — a wage ceiling, to be taxed at a rate of 100% once surpassed? As J.J Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract, “…in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.”
Value ecological proposals such as degrowth: consuming less, manufacturing less, designing totally recyclable objects and using less energy. Developing local economies.
Constructing autonomous distribution channels independent from the large-scale distributors that control practically all commercial activity, from production to retail.
Reconstruct the public sphere in a truly democratic manner, with the participation of everyone and as equals.
The future is, partly, in our hands
Finally, what is our capacity for control of our situation? In the previously cited article, Yela Bernabé and José Luis Marcos Malmierca argue that, in order to immunize ourselves from learned helplessness, the best thing is to have encountered neither success nor failure exclusively. Be conscious that there are things which we can control, and things which we cannot. As Epicurus remarked: “We must remember that the future is neither wholly ours nor wholly not ours, so that neither must we count upon it as quite certain to come nor despair of it as quite certain not to come.”
There are many examples of resistance to accumulation by dispossession that have triumphed in the world, such as the water in Bolivia or the insurrection in Chiapas. Never forget that history is mostly written by those above, who are happy to remind us only of the defeats suffered by those who struggled for emancipation.
Here in Spain, despite the clumsy first steps of a child learning to walk, the 15 M movement has obtained some notable successes as well as international projection. It has raised awareness about the root of our problems among a large sector of the population, it has put together very diverse social movements and it represents an excellent starting point for the development of cooperatives and solidarity networks.
Of course, we will make mistakes, but errors are what make us wiser.
Acting to open possibilities
In summary, faced with the fear that surrounds us, we must always remember that what is happening is not our fault, that the crisis is a crisis of the current economic model – which is not stable, it is anything but stable – and that this change can be an opportunity for a new, more humane world, free from the tyranny of money and other goods.
And, above all, let us never forget Alain Badiou’s teaching: we must act. Our actions do not have to fall within what’s possible; instead, the action itself can open up a new space of possibility. “A subject is a point of conversion of the possible into the possible. The fundamental operation of the subject is to be at the point where something impossible becomes a possibility”.