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October 1, 1972: The Majority's Attachment to Its Rulers Printer Friendly Version

The Majority's Attachment To Its Rulers
The Neo-Fascist Mentality and its Links to the Crisis of Authority

James Herod
October 1972

  Marcuse noted,* and tried to account for, the attachment of the majority to its rulers. He talked about how the unfreedom of bourgeois freedom (the freedom to choose among products, or leaders) circled back on people to reproduce their unfreedom. Thus the institutions of bourgeois democracy have again and again only reinforced the status quo. They function to integrate people into the system and into their own slavery. Thus you see the bizarre and unreal phenomenon of the slaves voting in, year after year, their own masters, returning them to power, voluntarily wedding themselves to the war mongers and murderers. Marcuse tried to explain this psychologically, with the notion of `repressed freedom'. The repression of life is internalized and is done by individuals themselves, in the sense of their having internalized the repressive culture. This creates enormous repressed tension and aggression, which must be siphoned off somehow. Hence, war parties. Hence, their identification with brutality and their insensitivity to it.

  I'm not sure he quite hit it. It is very true that people do identify with their rulers. I have encountered an attitude many times of people almost wanting to be controlled. That is, many people do not want freedom. They do not want democracy. Democracy is much too difficult and uncertain. What they want is an efficient ruler so they won't have to bother with this difficult matter of running the country. They simply want their lives to continue on undisturbed.

  I usually tend to think of this in terms of apathy and passivity. They do not want to have to be self-governing, don't want to put the energy into it, don't want to have to exert themselves. But this is obviously not quite true either. I don't want to fall into the liberal bag of blaming everything on the people, on their apathy. Apathy is the result of powerlessness, not its cause. The idea of apathy, as presented by liberals, is merely an apology for elitism, for the status quo of ruling class society. In the same breath that they complain about apathy they also tell you that having an elite (a hierarchy) is an inevitable and eternal aspect of all societies. So we have to dig deeper.

  People want to live, enjoy themselves, lead happy lives. They want to reduce unpleasantness to a minimum. Now even though the present set up is hard and has many disadvantages most people have learned to negotiate the system fairly well and they are used to it. That is, it works for them with a reasonable amount of effort, and otherwise leaves them alone to do their own thing. This is the root of it. The desire for an efficient ruler is linked with this profound desire to continue to lead these private lives, to do one's own thing as far as possible.

  But does the system really work for them even after a reasonable effort? And maybe it is not so much a desire to do one's own thing as it is simply a desire to survive, to go on living. This is it. People have to survive. The only way to do this in a capitalist society is to do your own thing. You are forced on your own, to face society alone, to sell by yourself your own labor-power. And this is the only way you can survive. How people can overlook the fact that they are not really able to do their own thing at present is beyond me, unless it is that doing one's own thing has come to be defined completely in terms of what the system provides for people to do in their free time (boating, bowling, golf, tv, Sunday rides, spectator sports, living in one's own little house with one's own little family).

  Dick made an interesting point on this. He said that most people are not passive at all but that in their own private lives they feel they are strong. They do their jobs and take care of themselves. What they want is a leader like themselves (strong, rugged), someone who does his job. Hence the identification with strong efficient government.

  There is another element. People work hard to arrange their own lives (their own private lives), but they see only utter chaos for the society as a whole unless it is held together by strong government. In other words, they are implicitly aware that they are not in a position to deal with society as a whole. This is not even in the picture, not a possibility. There is no way visible to them to do this. Moreover, they realize (implicitly perhaps) that even their own ability to manage for themselves and to take care of their own personal needs depends upon someone keeping the system as a whole together. If the overall framework were destroyed (e.g., if they were unable to get jobs) then everything would be chaos and they would not be able to manage to meet even their own private needs no matter how hard they worked at it. So, once again, it is a question of survival, of meeting basic human needs, of security. Hence the identification with the system and with those who protect it best.

  One failure of the Left has been (and still is) to provide concrete assurance of survival, a concrete image of how the system could be changed to work to greater advantage for all under a different set up. A key element in this is the failure to project a democratic version of socialism. The bourgeois illusion of freedom (individualistic) will be hard enough to replace with a genuinely democratic and collective version of socialism. It is impossible even to replace it with an authoritarian variety of socialism (which is not even socialism).

  Democracy however is perhaps not the most crucial factor. Survival is. People are forced into a fascist stance in order to survive. The movement has to be able to assure survival, even while the system is being transformed at its roots (the elimination of the wage-labor system). The movement has to show how this could be done.

  Let me go on, try again. There are those who argue that anti-authoritarianism is rampant in the country, and that this is due to greater permissiveness in upbringing, which has led to a crisis of authority, to a crisis of everyday life, and to the breakdown of American society. I usually disagree with such a view. I say instead that there has been an increase of authoritarianism in the country, a shift to the right, as exhibited for example in the Nixon vote (and also of course in the resurgence of the Old Left). Both positions are right in a way. The confusion is that anti-authoritarianism is an abstraction. There are two kinds of anti-authoritarianism. One is rooted in genuine democracy, in collectivity. This is the radical version. The second is rooted in individualism (do your own thing'ism). This is the bourgeois version. The bourgeois version in turn comes in two varieties, as always. (1) Liberal individualism -- the hippie variety; the back to the farm movement; the grow your own organic food movement; take care of yourself. It is a peculiar kind of self-reliance (petty bourgeois), tending toward egoism since the overall system can go to hell as far as they are concerned. (2) Conservative individualism -- the hardhat variety. This also has a survival aspect, but instead of heading back to the farm in order to take care of themselves and be self-reliant, hardhats advise people to get out and get jobs. The similarity of these two versions is striking.

  The anti-authoritarian attitudes that are rampant in the country these days, attitudes leading to a crisis of the system, are of the individualistic, bourgeois variety (in its two versions, hippie and hardhat). It is not the anti-authoritarianism of proletarian collectivity and genuine democracy. People are more than ever insistent upon doing their own thing. It is hard perhaps to see hardhats as having a do-your-own-thing outlook. But this element becomes readily apparent at the point where they resist anyone's interference with their right to get a job, to work, to sell their labor-power, that is, to take care of themselves individually (in this system), rather than collectively (which would mean breaking out of the system). They still believe that anyone who works hard can make it. The hardhats (i.e., the conservative majority) understand that their ability to do-their-own-thing requires that the overall framework be maintained. The hippies do not see this. This is why the liberal version of the tendency is so mythical, illusory, and less connected with reality than the hardhat version. And this is where the authoritarianism that I spoke of comes into the picture. Bourgeois anti-authoritarianism is the other face of authoritarianism. Hardhats turn to a strong leader in order to be able to continue living their own lives (as they traditionally have), and in order not to be bothered with the system. In this sense they are also individualistic, like the hippies. The system allows them to do their own thing, to survive, so they think, but it must be kept working if this is to remain true. It cannot be disrupted. It cannot be allowed to fall apart, especially if this is thought to be the result of the actions of radicals. So they turn to a fascist type leader when they see the system being threatened or beginning to break down. Once again the two polar opposites, individualism and authoritarianism, go hand in hand.


* In a speech Marcuse gave at Columbia University in the fall of 1972, to which this note is a response.