Critical thinking anti-authoritarians see the enormity of the military-industrial complex, the energy-industrial complex, and the financial-industrial complex. They see the overwhelming power of the U.S. ruling class. They see many Americans unaware of the true sources of their oppression or with little knowledge of the strategies and tactics necessary to overcome it. They see American society lacking the psychological and cultural building blocks necessary for democratic movements—the self-respect required to reject the role as a mere subject of power, the collective self-confidence that success is possible, courage, determination, anti-authoritarianism, and solidarity. They see how the corporatocracy pays back those few Americans who do question, challenge, and resist illegitimate authority with economic and political marginalization. Why bother with any kind of political activism? Isn’t it futile?
Critical Thinking, Depression, and Political Passivity
Research shows that a more accurate notion of one’s powerless can result in a greater feeling of helplessness and is associated with depression. Several classic studies show that moderately depressed people are more critically thinking than those who are not depressed. Researchers Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abramson, studying nondepressed and depressed subjects who played a rigged game in which they had no actual control, found that nondepressed subjects overestimated their contribution to winning, while depressed subjects more accurately evaluated their lack of control.
If you are critical thinking enough to see the reality of just how much influence the corporatocracy has and how little power you have, then you are going to experience more pain than those who do not see these truths. To dull this pain, in addition to drugs and other diversions, human beings use depression and apathy. But these “shutdown strategies” weaken us and create passivity, immobilization, and what Bob Marley called “mental slavery,” which in itself can be humiliatingly painful. And in this vicious cycle, human beings use even more diversions and shutdown strategies to dull this ever-increasing pain.
When one is in such a debilitating vicious cycle, painful truths about the cause of one’s malaise—the truths of how we are getting screwed—are not positively energizing. Instead, one may take such truths as confirmation that pessimism and hopelessness are warranted. The vicious cycle continues.
When one is already in pain and immobilized, there is a reflexive negative reaction to any proposed solution. Solutions demand effort, and a demand for effort is painful for those with little energy. So, it’s much easier to reflexively dismiss any solution. Of course, many solutions do deserve to be dismissed, as they may well be naïve.
The feeling of hopelessness is a legitimate one. And hopeless people are turned off by attempts to invalidate their feelings. Is it possible to validate that feeling of hopelessness while at the same time challenging the wisdom of inactions based on hopelessness? And is it possible to challenge it in a way that doesn’t insult the intelligence of critical thinkers?
Critical Thinking about Critical Thinking
The battle against the corporatocracy demands critical thinking, which results in seeing many ugly truths about reality. This critical thinking is absolutely necessary. Without it, one is more likely to engage in tactics that can make matters worse. Critical thinking also means the ability to think critically about one’s pessimism—realizing that pessimism can cripple the will. Critical thinkers who reflect on their own critical thinking recognize how negativism can cause inaction, which results in maintaining the status quo.
Critical thinking anti-authoritarians who move into hopelessness can forget that while they may in fact be better at seeing ugly truths than are many other people, they cannot see everything. Simply put, critical thinkers sometimes lose their humility
Abraham Lincoln, considered by many historians to be our most critical thinking president, was also a major depressive. When he was a young man, he became so depressed that twice his friends had to form suicide watches over him. In the 1850s in the United States, the major battle was less over abolishing slavery than merely stopping the spread of it. Lincoln, who fought politically to stop the spread of slavery, wrote in 1856 a pessimistic analysis of the North’s chances of winning this fight:
This immense, palpable pecuniary interest, on the question of extending slavery, unites the Southern people, as one man. But it can not be demonstrated that the North will gain a dollar by restricting it. Moral principle is all, or nearly all, that unites us of the North. Pity ’tis, it is so, but this is a looser bond, than pecuniary interest. Right here is the plain cause of their perfect union and our want of it.
That slavery would be abolished in the United States less than a decade after Lincoln’s pessimistic analysis of the difficulty of merely stopping its spread was one of those seeming impossibilities that became possible because of unforeseen historical events. In the North, there was certainly not enough concern for African Americans so as to end slavery. But less than a decade after Lincoln’s pessimistic analysis about merely stopping the spread of slavery, one unforeseen event after another resulted in the abolition of slavery.
There are many examples from history of seeming impossibilities actually happening, examples that compel critical thinkers to rethink whether they are actually seeing all the possibilities. One recent example is, of course, the Arab spring. Many critical thinkers from that part of the world remain amazed at the huge revolts in Egypt that toppled the Mubarak tyranny.
The collapse of the Soviet empire seemed impossible to most Americans up until shortly before it occurred. Most Americans saw only mass resignation within the Soviet Union and its sphere of control. But the shipyard workers in Gdansk, Poland, did not see their Soviet and Communist Party rulers as the all-powerful forces that Americans did. And so Polish workers’ Solidarity, by simply refusing to go away, provided a strong dose of morale across Eastern Europe at the same time other historical events—such as the Soviet Union’s Afghanistan war—weakened their empire.
Why Not Just Wait for the Collapse?
History tells us that not just the Soviet empire but all empires ultimately collapse, and so why not just wait for their fall? It is pretty safe to say that the U.S. military-industrial complex and other oppressive U.S. industrial complexes will ultimately fall. These may be transformed by our own efforts or, more likely—given Americans’ current state of political passivity—they will fall owing mostly under the weight of their own stupidity. So, if it is more likely that these will fall under the weight of their own stupidity, why bother with activism?
One reason for democratic movements is that history tells us that not all empires and oppressive institutions fall under the weight of their own stupidity, as some are transformed by a combination of democratic movements and empire stupidity.
There is another reason to work each day on the democracy battlefields at our workplace, schools, the media, the marketplace, etc. Whether an empire and its oppressive institutions fall under the weight of their own stupidity or with help from a democratic movement, there must be people around in the aftermath who have what it takes to create and maintain a democratic society. There must be people who have retained their individual self-respect, collective self-confidence, courage, determination, anti-authoritarianism, and solidarity.
The lesson from history is that tyrannical and dehumanizing institutions are often more fragile than they appear. We never really know until it happens whether or not we are living in that time when historical variables are creating opportunities for seemingly impossible change. Maybe in our lifetime, or our kids’ lifetime, or their kids’ lifetime, the current corporatocracy will fall. It may fall because of the efforts of democratic movements or because of its own stupidity or some combination. But when it does fall, the likelihood that it will be replaced by an enduring democratic society rests on whether there are enough of us with practice in democracy, enough of us who took seriously the psychological and cultural building blocks of self-respect, collective self-confidence, courage, determination, anti-authoritarianism, and solidarity. And democratic movements are the best place to practice creating those psychological and cultural building blocks required for an enduring democracy.
That’s why “Occupy Wall Street” makes sense, and that’s why I will be at “October 2011” at Freedom Plaza, Washington D.C. beginning next Thursday, October 6.