How Can Anti-Authoritarian Critical Thinkers Rise Above Their Pessimism and Fight?

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.

5 Responses

  1. jeff
    jeff September 30, 2011 at 8:09 pm |

    I read Get up Stand Up and learned quite a bit from it.
    Glad to see you will be in DC on 10/6. I visited Wall St last Saturday and will again tomorrow, 10/1, to stand with them. I’ve contributed to their food fund. I think it’s critical to nurture this movement.

    Have you seen ?
    The movement has already spread to dozens of cities.


  2. Bilge
    Bilge October 9, 2011 at 6:41 pm |

    Dr Levine,

    The waves of action created today by anti-authoritarian masses and the problems and questions that they will face in the future are interlinked. The critical thinker, who no longer has the luxury to miss any possibilities, should be able to envisage the subsequent step or direction while a certain development is starting to become practical reality. This might be the way to maintain the dialectical unity of spontaneous and voluntarist developments. For instance, snowballing of popular action and thus achievement of unity are essential for success in the face of a state machine of which the violence will surely be intensified for the out of control moribund order may not go out without the biggest fight ever, which is why only unified action can make the best use of the divisions and contradictions internal to the capitalist camp. There is no need to mention the implications. At the same time, the future, in one form or another, shall inherit the unity to be established today. Considering the existence and influence of auhtoritarian ‘progressives’, future may also be subject to dangerous divisions that can cause reversals or different forms of oppression and suffering. Therefore, needless to say that what is done today shall determine what may happen tomorrow. In order to solve all these issues, coupled with the fact that any revolution today will have to be a world revolution in the face of global system, critical thinking anti-authoritarians have to seek some sort of international coordination, simultaneity in action and, more importantly, an initial consensus on principles and expectations etc. This international dimension might be the only way to ensure that any local revolution would also trigger the same or similar results in other areas of the world, and that no matter how long it takes the revolution is political, economic, social, and environmental or simply carry their essential germs. At this point in time, critical thinking anti-authoritarianism cannot afford to exist with limits ot its capacity at the expense of tearing itself apart.

  3. Nadia
    Nadia December 5, 2011 at 5:13 am |

    I’m 58 and I have never felt so disconnected from my surroundings. I have read your first book and ordered your second, highlighted at right.

    I am grateful because I, too, finally found the source of my depression, a.k.a., demoralization.

    My father, an immigrated and naturalized American Citizen died last year. Growing up as the child of a European born child as well as living with my family overseas gave me a comfort with being a world citizen as well as an American – albeit with a twist as I learned from my father, an intellectual and engineer, to think globally, critically, and thoughtfully about life and never to take anything for granted.

    I lost that perspective, however, between 1970 – 2000 – as I was in a marriage – managing my family and entrenched in my human resources career. Although my husband and I had been quite “counter-culture” in our approach to politics, work and family …. we were mainly absorbed in making it work and raising our kids.

    Since 2000, though, our country and my demoralization, ( I appreciate your using this term which is more accurate for me than depression), have grown more sour with each passing year.

    Last night, I watched CBS 60 minutes – and their expose of the lack of accountability towards the banking industry and the whistleblowers who, of course, were punished for simply doing their jobs well.

    I was enraged! I simmered and stewed and cried and, here I sit, responding to your blog.

    My career took me, very personally, through the trenches with these – mostly hubris filled sociopathic men in charge – especially in banking and, yes, healthcare and I did things on their demand that still cause me pain as my actions, done as an agent of the “human resources” of the place, to keep my ass paid.

    I’m paying the mental price for my years of inattention and inaction to the inside turmoil caused by my fear and insecurity related to survival in what I thought, then, “the system”. I lived my home and married life differently.

    The bottom fell out recently for my second husband and I and we now live very simply and primatively in a mid-western rural place on forested land where we wake up in quiet and the surroundings are mainly devoid of humans except us. We used up all of our physical, mental, and financial resources to find out way here and we are extraordinarily grateful as we are starting to heal bit-by-bit. Connecting with the natural world and it’s inhabitants has been extraordinary. The attachment to “stuff” and the insanity of our cultural excesses remains like a binge when we watch tv.

    It feels psychotic though. I love this new silence broken only by the natural sounds of wind, rain, trees creaking and forest creatures moving around – surprising us with their lack of fear towards our intrusion into their world. I’ve had the gift (by financial punishment) of receiving this amazing peace.

    My brain and conscience, however, see-saw from day-to-day spending my time either exhausted and sleeping in this peace and beauty or verbally ranting and raging against new corporate/hollywood industrial complex assaults on our hypnotized passive masses who use their credit cards to buy buy buy to support support support these tolerated predators.

    I want to thank you for your books because now I know why I feel this way and I’m starting to formulate my plans. Bless you for speaking out. It must have been difficult – especially on your early mainstream career.

    I know full-well EVERYTHING you address about big pharma as my last work in my now departed HR career was recruiting pharmacists, many of whom are viciously caught up in the moral versus livlihood mental conflicts of their work every single day.

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