On the need for inner tranquility in order to avoid authoritarianism
The preamble of the US Constitution contains this prodigious message:
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. … “
Words can be powerful, especially poetic words that carry loads of meaning. But do we today live according to these constitutional principles? Or to put it differently, what did Western governments do in recent years to establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility?
Well, first they helped our inner tranquility by dusting off medieval practices like waterboarding and humiliation; they simply tortured people. Next, they hypnotically repeated the unjust idea that taxpayers, not the unregulated banking sector, were the root cause of our economic problems. And to further our calm, they extended the use of secret evidence; they spied upon us and increased the installation of cameras on every corner of our streets. This process toward possible authoritarianism is still far from over. Somehow, we all seem to accept this McCarthyist paranoia. That highlights the following question: what is going on in the West? Why do we have this uneasiness inside our minds that makes all of this possible? Why do we forget the lessons about tranquility our ancestors once wrote down?
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Of course, there are many explanations available for such broad questions, but perhaps there’s a voice that’s subtly being suppressed in the West. Every culture has its taboos. In her book On Anxiety, British academic and psychiatrist Renata Salecl, former spouse of philosopher Slavoj Zizek, points out some interesting things about the origins of our daily anxieties – which, by the way, closely resemble the critique by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Basically Salecl states that we lack the time in modern life to reflect on things that are really important to us, like taking up the responsibility to help secure our civil liberties.
This process of the “zombification of the individual” as one can call it, works something like this: For the past 40 years, we have been dominated by the ideology that people would be happier and more at ease if they were constantly shopping for the best deals. But there’s a catch.
To do that, most people are obliged to spend a lot of time at work. Meanwhile, the time to enjoy the mystery of life – to watch children grow, to develop one’s creativity or to learn oneself – passes.
Maybe some feel grief about this or tell themselves that at some point in the distant future there will still be some time left. But most people seem to accept the status quo, give up their dreams and, thereby, their power as well. They accept the downside of materialism as the natural order of things since they’ve come to believe that possession of material goods is what it takes to experience personal fulfillment. In other words, welcome to the age of cynicism and decadence, where there is no hope for a more fulfilling future other than “buying stuff,” as American comedian George Carlin once put it.
The cultivation of this cynical idea is the job of advertising agencies that deliver profits for big corporations. It means that on a psychological level, what our laissez-faire capitalistic system effectively does is construct a social reality that seduces most people into omitting their inner call for personal growth. Thus, they neglect their very own personal responsibility and, consequently, their democratic duties as well.
And so we end up in a situation where most people in the West don’t believe in fighting for civil and economic liberties anymore. They simply can’t imagine that a more humane form of capitalism and democracy is attainable and that in this whole drama they could have a valuable role to play.
Besides the short-term satisfaction consumerism delivers, what’s left is an experienced feeling of inner emptiness, restlessness, alienation and despair, at least among those who have not completely turned to the “dark side” of acting out a robot-like life in the service of profit and narcissism.
If this is an adequate description of what is really going on inside most Westerners’ minds, then this basically means that there is a whole lot of negative energy out there. However, people are not necessarily aware of their own inner state, especially when, on average, they have less and less time available for contemplation. And above all, it is too big of a taboo to talk openly about these issues.
This lack of debate can be very dangerous, though, because human consciousness has a tendency to crave strong authoritarian leadership if it experiences a loss of control and, at the same time, is unaware of its willpower. Remember that despotic leaders such as Napoleon, Hitler or more recently, Mugabe, all came into power by the will of the majority.
What is important to note here is that this longing for authoritarianism is in fact a desperate attempt to sustain one’s zombie-like identity, even to the point of self-destruction. It works through a process of mental repression of information that signifies the unpleasant reality of fears one has to overcome to grow as a human being. Psychologists sometimes call this zombie-like resistance to growth “learned helplessness.”
But there’s more. Because of this cultivated resistance to growth, politicians gain in popularity when they facilitate this process of zombification. That’s why they push political discourse farther and farther in the direction of the punishing police state instead of the social state.
If Salecl is on to something, perhaps there is a lesson in all of this: To build a vital democracy, most artists and intellectuals, like the writers of the Constitution, conclude that one needs a soul at ease. But income stagnation and the cultivation of cynicism, consumerism and decadence throughout the West makes it hard for most of us to have the tranquility to bolster our democracies. Instead, people passively seem to accept tight state control.
Hence, it is not going to be easy to change things. People have to recognize their inner resistance to start with. But it definitely helps if more and more Westerners become aware that it is their very own inner despair caused by a corrupt system that connects them to their fellow human beings. At least that’s a start.
Werner de Gruijter is a social psychologist and moderator of the Symposion Nights in Amsterdam, a platform for critical thought.