Saturday, November 11, 2006

"Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism"

or, "How to recognize a potential cult or fascist/totalitarian political movement from quite a long way away."

Online excerpt from a book by Robert Jay Lifton, who's well worth getting to know. The eight criteria of ideological totalism.

Note that the content of the ideology itself is largely irrelevant; the group/belief system could be "about" literally anything, and in fact if you go to the homepage of the hosting site, Rick Ross Institute for Study of Destructive Cults, you'll see that the database covers the entire political and religious spectrums as well as a number of groups that don't really fit either category. It's not primarily about the beliefs or ideas, iow. It's about the behavior. The interpersonal dynamic. To wit:

1 milieu control (controlled relations with the outer world, this leads among others to lack of relevant information)

2 mystic manipulation (events are orchestrated to appear miraculous or spontaneous)

3 confession (strong pressure to make a person confess past and present "sins" i.e. acts that do not help the group or the ideology)

4 self-sanctification through purity (pushing the individual towards a not-attainable perfection)

5 aura of sacred science (beliefs of the group are sacrosanct and perfect)

6 loaded language (new meanings to words, encouraging black-white thinking, thought-stoppers)

7 doctrine over person (ideology and the group are more important than the individual)

8 dispensed existence (insiders are saved, outsiders are doomed)

More fleshing-out of these at the Rick Ross site:

1) The most basic feature of the thought reform environment, the psychological current upon which all else depends, is the control of human communication. Through this milieu control the totalist environment seeks to establish domain over not only the individual's communication with the outside (all that he sees and hears, reads or writes, experiences, and expresses), but also - in its penetration of his inner life - over what we may speak of as his communication with himself. It creates an atmosphere uncomfortably reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984.

Such milieu control never succeeds in becoming absolute, and its own human apparatus can - when permeated by outside information - become subject to discordant "noise" beyond that of any mechanical apparatus. To totalist administrators, however, such occurrences are no more than evidences of "incorrect" use of the apparatus...

[me] This includes not just formal censorship by governments and such, but use of some of the other techniques (following) to strongly discourage reading material or talking to people outside the "approved" circle.

3) The Demand for Purity
In the thought reform milieu, as in all situations of ideological totalism, the experiential world is sharply divided into the pure and the impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil. The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy; anything else is apt to be relegated to the bad and the impure. Nothing human is immune from the flood of stern moral judgments. All "taints" and "poisons" which contribute to the existing state of impurity must be searched out and eliminated.

The philosophical assumption underlying this demand is that absolute purity is attainable, and that anything done to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately moral. In actual practice, however, no one is really expected to achieve such perfection. Nor can this paradox be dismissed as merely a means of establishing a high standard to which all can aspire. Thought reform bears witness to its more malignant consequences: for by defining and manipulating the criteria of purity, and then by conducting an all-out war upon impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform, a demand that one strive permanently and painfully for something which not only does not exist but is in fact alien to the human condition.

At the level of the relationship between individual and environment, the demand for purity creates what we may term a guilty milieu and a shaming milieu. Since each man's impurities are deemed sinful and potentially harmful to himself and to others, he is, so to speak, expected to expect punishment - which results in a relationship of guilt and his environment. Similarly, when he fails to meet the prevailing standards in casting out such impurities, he is expected to expect humiliation and ostracism - thus establishing a relationship of shame...

[is any of this ringing any bells for anyone here, per chance, Dear Readers?...]

6) Loading the Language
The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.... And in addition to their function as interpretive shortcuts, these cliches become what Richard Weaver has called "ultimate terms" : either "god terms," representative of ultimate good; or "devil terms," representative of ultimate evil....Totalist language then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: in Lionel Trilling's phrase, "the language of nonthought."

To be sure, this kind of language exists to some degree within any cultural or organizational group, and all systems of belief depend upon it. It is in part an expression of unity and exclusiveness: as Edward Sapir put it, "'He talks like us' is equivalent to saying 'He is one of us.'" The loading is much more extreme in ideological totalism, however...

[The classic example of this is, someone asks "what do you mean by such-and-so?" and the response is, variously, -crickets,- "oh, god, if you HAVE TO ASK," or some kind of tautological nonexplanation that only makes sense if you already buy into the belief system].

7) Doctrine Over Person
This sterile language reflects characteristic feature of ideological totalism: the subordination of human experience to the claims of doctrine. This primacy of doctrine over person is evident in the continual shift between experience itself and the highly abstract interpretation of such experience - between genuine feelings and spurious cataloguing of feelings...The underlying assumption is that the doctrine - including its mythological elements - is ultimately more valid, true, and real than is any aspect of actual human character or human experience.

...Rather than modify the myth in accordance with experience, the will to orthodoxy requires instead that men be modified in order to reaffirm the myth.

8) The Dispensing of Existence
The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence can be recognized, and those who possess no such right.

Are not men presumtuous to appoint themselves the dispensers of human existence? Surely this is a flagrant expression of what the Greeks called hubris, of arrogant man making himself God. Yet one underlying assumption makes this arrogance mandatory: the conviction that there is just one path to true existence, just one valid mode of being, and that all others are perforce invalid and false. Totalists thus feel themselves compelled to destroy all possibilities of false existence as a means of furthering the great plan of true existence to which they are committed.

For the individual, the polar emotional conflict is the ultimate existential one of "being versus nothingness." He is likely to be drawn to a conversion experience, which he sees as the only means of attaining a path of existence for the future. The totalist environment - even when it does not resort to physical abuse [emphasis mine]- thus stimulates in everyone a fear of extinction or annihilation... Ultimately of course one compromises and combines the totalist "confirmation" with independent elements of personal identity; but one is ever made aware that, should he stray too far along this "erroneous path," his right to existence may be withdrawn...

To sum up:

...What is the source of ideological totalism? How do these extremist emotional patterns originate? These questions raise the most crucial and the most difficult of human problems. Behind ideological totalism lies the ever-present human quest for the omnipotent guide - for the supernatural force, political party, philosophical ideas, great leader, or precise science - that will bring ultimate solidarity to all men and eliminate the terror of death and nothingness. This quest is evident in the mythologies, religions, and histories of all nations, as well as in every individual life.

The degree of individual totalism involved depends greatly upon factors in one's personal history: early lack of trust, extreme environmental chaos, total domination by a parent or parent-representative, intolerable burdens of guilt, and severe crises of identity. Thus an early sense of confusion and dislocation, or an early experience of unusually intense family milieu control, can produce later a complete intolerance for confusion and dislocation, and a longing for the reinstatement of milieu control. But these things are in some measure part of every childhood experience; and therefore the potential for totalism is a continuum from which no one entirely escapes, and in relationship to which no two people are exactly the same.

It may be that the capacity for totalism is most fundamentally a product of human childhood itself, of the prolonged period of helplessness and dependency through which each of us must pass. Limited as he is, the infant has no choice but to imbue his first nurturing authorities - his parents - with an exaggerated omnipotence, until the time he is himself capable of some degree of independent action and judgment. And even as he develops into the child and the adolescent, he continues to require many of the all-or-none polarities of totalism as terms with which to define his intellectual, emotional, and moral worlds. Under favorable circumstances (that is, when family and culture encourage individuation) these requirements can be replaced by more flexible and moderate tendencies; but they never entirely disappear.

During adult life, individual totalism takes on new contours as it becomes associated with new ideological interests. It may become part of the configuration of personal emotions, messianic ideas, and organized mass movement which I have described as ideological totalism. When it does, we cannot speak of it as simply as ideological regression. It is partly this, but it is also something more: a new form of adult embeddedness, originating in patterns of security-seeking carried over from childhood, but with qualities of ideas and aspirations that are specifically adult. During periods of cultural crisis and of rapid historical change, the totalist quest for the omnipotent guide leads men to seek to become that guide.

Totalism, then, is a widespread phenomenon, but it is not the only approach to re-education. We can best use our knowledge of it by applying its criteria to familiar processes in our own cultural tradition and in our own country.


That last part's (hell, you may find all of it) a bit abstract-seeming, I know.

How I read this is: everyone has tendencies in this direction, to "totalize," to become part of a merged supraorganization. And yes, it's personal as well as political, in the sense that you can look at both individual family (and so on) histories) as well as bigger cultural and social trends, in terms of who's gonna be relatively more attracted to such things.

And, but: it's important to learn to recognize what this dynamic is, and to find another way; because this is ultimately going to be toxic and inimical to human growth--both personal and political.

Lifton's obviously very influenced by Orwell, p.s., particularly "Politics and The English Language," as well as his resistance to all orthodoxies. Which is not the same as never joining a movement, not taking a stand on anything, holding no beliefs or political positions, etc.

Oh, yeah, one more thing. One of the trickiest parts about such groups, movements, whatever, is that their initial appeal is that they offer a way "out" of some -other- abusive system/environment. It's sort of on the same principle of the abusive significant other at first seeming to offer a blessed escape from an abusive family; what you don't realize till much later is that in fact you've made -superficial- changes (i.e. the S.O. may on the surface seem to have no personality or physical resemblance to the abusive parents, etc.), but the -dynamic- is the same, because you've never quite tweaked that -that's- the -real- problem.

So in other words, you could leave one abusive and controlling group for another, or even an "anti-that-group/ideology" group that turns out to be quite controlling and dogmatic itself; it just makes the other group/worldview/whatever itself the "enemy" instead of whatever "enemies" that the previous abusers had doomed to badness (and which probably included you yourself, which is why you're trying to get the hell away from them in the first place).

or, more often, the group in question defines itself against the mainstream, which is itself deemed to be oppressive, controlling, terrorizing, etc.--everything the group itself is, in other words. But since the people attracted to the group -did- experience whatever aspect of the "mainstream" as terrorizing, oppressive, etc., the group is, at first at least, going to make a lot of sense--to them.


Joseph Kugelmass said...

This was great reading. I'm sure that everybody was thinking the same things: what have I experienced that falls under these categories? I was flashing on Burma and North Korea, certain philosophical movements within academia, and self-help groups I've seen friends and acquaintances pursue.

belledame222 said...

North Korea's kind of the ultimate expression of this, yah, i would say.

what's great about Lifton is, he doesn't really make huge distinctions between this happening at the "political" (i.e. a government or nation-state, or even a church) level and the "personal" or at least micro level. he's particularly concerned with cults achieving the level of international terrorists with the new! improved! access to--you guessed it--Weapons of Mass Destruction.

he was writing about this long before 9/11, the possibility of a borderless cult/group getting their hands on a nuclear weapon or similar agent of destruction. in "Destroying the World to Save It" he talks about a number of such groups, particularly concentrating on Aum Shinrinkyo, you know, the folks who dumped sarin gas into the Tokyo subway some years back. they never did get a hold of a nuke, but, it turns out, chillingly, it wasn't for lack of serious trying.

mostly he writes about -why- this happens; it's a great if often rather bleak and disturbing read. TV Guide summary: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." the destroy-the-world impulse is -always- the flip side of an idealized utopia; the problem isn't mustache-twirling villains, but the black-and-white thinking which creates mustache-twirling-villains in the first place. (always "them," never "us," of course).

and, too, of course, it certainy doesn't have to get to that level to be corrosive, and most often doesn't. ultimately it's about soul-murder/suicide; the physical destruction is merely a concrete expression of what's already happened inside.

(on a related note, I'm still morbidly fascinated with Michael Jackson, and have speculated that North Korea is sort of like what would happen if he'd had his own country).

another useful, related concept: "malignant narcissism," per Eric Fromm (who's also clearly a big influence on Lifton).

belledame222 said...

and by the way, as far as I know he's very much against the current "War on Terror," and has expressed sentiments to the effect that the Bush administration/neocons have become the thing they wanted to destroy, effectively.

Unsane said...

What seems to be very erroneous -- at at least strongly counterproductive -- in contemporary societies is the feeling that "authoritarianism" leads to totalitarianism. Of course this is probably true if the two words are considered to be equivalent to begin with. Yet what is usually understood as the danger of "authoritarianism" is actually nothing other than "authoritativeness". So, there seems to be a general agenda in the western school system to undermine authoritativeness and promote learning at one's own pace as a path to individuation.

And this SO doesn't work. What it does do is to produce a vacuum of authority -- where authoritativeness should be, there is just the sense of the flailing individual "self", still poorly defined, uncertain. And this, my friends, is what produces the sickness which reinforces the dominant social order -- including traditional gender roles -- as a last resort to finding something hidden and authoritative.

So fighting the sense that there are people or ideas which are authoritative actually produces what the ideology of "anti-authoritarianism" is supposed to head off: sick puppies, who hide their propensity for conformity and abuse of the outsider under the mask of being individually "different".

belledame222 said...

Ah. You know, in my Human Development class, we actually talked about the (actually very clear) distinction between the "authoritarian" and "authoritative" models. (boh to be distinguished from the "laissez-faire," or however they were defining it). We were talking about families, but it could be applied just as well to society on the macro level. I should really dig that shit out and make it a separate post.

Unsane said...

Yes--but much as certain academics will be happy to discuss a difference between authoritarian and authoritative, what most people consider to be "authoritative" is a reinforcement of what they feel they already know. IN other words, anything to difficult to chew is cast into the "authoritarian" basket as a reprehensible imposition. This kind of attitude (the path of least resistance misunderstood as anti-authoritarianism) reinforces the status quo.

Unsane said...

Or, to put it differently, I see within the local society I live, a complete -- 100 percent-- inability to apply authoritativeness in a way which goes against the power structure. It is shocking, but in all the years of my adult existence in this place, I have never seen adult authoritativeness used for such measures as: stopping bullying, appealing to a higher level of reason or aspiration, reacting against ethical injustices, etc. At the most, I have seen a kind of pleading with a perpetrator not to do the same thing again, and I have seen cold bureaucratic measures invoked, but I have never seen a human being stand up for what they believe is right. I reason that this kind of assertiveness has been removed from conditioned human behaviour as a product of "authoritarianism". To stand up and be assertive is felt to be too aggressive for comfort. The Left is unaggressive, pacifist -- it allows for people to choose, for situations to take their course. But of course this strategy of removing dynamism from the souls of society's children also breeds conformity, fearful uncertainty and ultimately a capitulation to the Right.

Professor Zero said...

Well, I thought you were alluding to Republican propaganda, but my first thoughts were 12 step groups, some other self help groups, and some acolytes of Derrida and Lacan.

Professor Zero said...

P.S. a perhaps too obvious study question would be, compare this and W. Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism.

Renegade Eye said...

That type of thought expressed in the post, was popular in the 1980s. It was called the deprogramming movement. It focused on locking cult members in a room, and trying to change their atitude. It died because of civil libertarian concern. The cults are still active.

Professor Zero said...

P.P.S. I'd love to hear more about the Michael Jackson theory. And unsane, that authoritarian/authoritative distinction is key, I will study this,
hope you do post on it, belledame222!

belledame222 said...

RE: Fairly certain that Rick Ross is not pro-"deprogramming;" his site is intended as informational.

and yeah, the word "cult" can be and has been abused quite a bit. a lot of people use it to mean simply "groups whose beliefs I find too far out/meet with my disapproval." in some cases i think the cult-callers are cultier than the "cults," particularly in the case of certain churches. if you look at the database, you'll note that the most popularly accused of cult/brainwashing/yadda, "Satanic ritual abuse" groups, are pretty well debunked as urban legend for the most part.

and then, too, weird shit happens. there's one formerly ex-scientologist site that was bought out by the Scientologists; now it still goes under the same name and talks a lot about -other- "cults," but strangely enough it's rather decidedly pro-Scientologist! woooo

and yeah, prof zero, i'd meant to talk about Reich some more, particularly wrt "sex positive" (assuming i get back to the Eternal Subject, which is quite likely).

per Michael Jackson: well, briefly: he's clearly a megalomaniac; I mean, who else floats giant statues of themselves down a river? there's more to talk about wrt "malignant narcissim" wrt him as well as certain ummm political figures: the frozen-in-time-ness is kind of key, actually; it's like a death-in-life, you know. they tend to be terrified of death, oddly enough, including the ones who court it, want to "destroy the world to save it;" the leader of Aum was apparently a terrible hypochondriac, as is/was Osama Bin Laden. actually it's a fear of -life-; and of growth, of change.

the post i really mean to do that covers all of this is called "Notes on the Cultuere of the Undead." hopefully i'll get to it this month.

unsane: i think ultimately what you're talking about is bigger than semantics, though.

>It is shocking, but in all the years of my adult existence in this place, I have never seen adult authoritativeness used for such measures as: stopping bullying, appealing to a higher level of reason or aspiration, reacting against ethical injustices, etc. At the most, I have seen a kind of pleading with a perpetrator not to do the same thing again, and I have seen cold bureaucratic measures invoked, but I have never seen a human being stand up for what they believe is right.>

Yes, exactly.

I think one word we may be dancing around here is -morals.-

It's also really easy to despise the ineffectual pleader with the bully, the one who knows better but doesn't protect. studies of family dynamics show time and again that in fact the non-abusive but ineffective/"weak" parent is often hated -more- than the actual abuser. Partly because it's safer to hate hir; partly because of the feeling of betrayal. What's called "sanctuary trauma," i think, is part of this.

and, as i posted about once, if Lakoff's theory of "father" versus "mother" models of political leadership holds water, then it's no bloody wonder that the Dems/left are treated as they are: it's sort of like the wife/mother who knows Dad is being a terrifying drunken abusive asshole but basically walks on eggshells around him, sometimes even passively letting him take out his shit on one of the kids out of fear for her own ass, all the while acting as though there's nothing more she can do; be good and do as he says, be patient, and maybe when he's in a better mood/our ship comes in/we're rescued by flying saucers, things will get better. People get -awfully- tired of this. And angry. As they grow up, particularly.

in recent months/years the trend has been toward a sort of "muscular liberalism," but honestly i have to say in a number of cases it's not much better; it's often more like the eldest son/big brother feeling his oats and alternately rebelling against Dad and aping him.

Unsane said...

Talking about some self help groups of Derrida and Lacan -- why are they so vehement, so morally strident in denying that there can be fundamental human differences, for example in perspective, in conditioning processes, and in thinking processes? Even Fredric Jameson feels compelled to defend himself rhetorically against them by conceding that, if we admit that there are fundamental difference we end up (logically? Somehow Logically...??!) positioning those who we think of as different as "Other" and then abusing them freely until the end of time. But who really feels this way? Only those dominated by The Categorical Imperative to experience the world in a kind of detached moral sense whilst denying the material data which impacts upon our senses and our feelings hour after hour. It is only from the perspective of the Categorical Imperative, which Michael Mack (New German Critique, No. 85, Special Issue on Intellectuals 2002 pp. 3-31) labels The Oedipus Complex, that deep differences look horrible at all. From the viewpoing of the Oedipus Complex (the self-blinding perspective regarding all by moral prescriptions for perceiving) difference looks to be evilness incarnate. Yet from a materialist perspective, difference is to be expected -- even as a welcome relief from daily humdrum. I have been a migrant for more than 20 years, but the concrete sense of that -- my memories, my previous realities, the ways that past experiences have changed my feelings -- is something nobody has ever wanted to engage me on. It is easier to make crude estimates about a person's origins and what that might possibly mean in the world of speculative ideas, than to engage that person directly to find out what they are thinking. So, difference is seen as automatically offensive from the viewpoint of those who have a sense of it. And certain academics make the Categorical Imperative quite clear: "Thou shalt not acknowledge difference, lest thou sin."

belledame222 said...

damn, and here i thought the only hurdle with Lacan was getting to the point of understanding what the fuck he's talking about in the damn first place. i guess i'm safe from that one, at least...

Cassandra Says said...

Oy yes, I'd say this rings a few bells...
It's easy to point our fingers at obvious cases like North Korea, but what's really interesting (and scary) is how often the same things can be seen in just about any political movement. I've been shouted down for pointing out these tendencies in some aspects of the feminist movement (notice that I said SOME), particularly the purity issue.
"I should really dig that shit out and make it a separate post. " Yes, please. It's amazing how many theories about the family on a micro level can easily be applied to the family on a macro level, ie society.
What unsane is saying about authoritiveness makes a lot of sense. I see a generalised tendency to shy away from making difficult decisions as a society. Also, the religious right has hijacked the idea of morality, of standing up for what you believe is right, so completely that the idea of a sense of right and wrong that comes from one's own conscience has almost been lost. And that's a dangerous thing.
I think the biggest prolem that the Left has in this country is that it has given up it's claim to the moral high ground, and Leftist arguments just don't work without that sense that the reason we want to do the things that we want to do it because they are the right things to do from an ethical point of view. Nationalised health care? An ethical issue. Gay marriage? Again, an ethical issue, and not in the way the right is trying to frame it at all. Abortion? Id' say that control over one's own body is an ethical issue, wouldn't you?
We've given up the moral high ground, and frankly I don't think we're ever going to get anywhere until we take it back. A lot of the things that the Right wants to do are downright unethical, and it's about time we started saying so.
So basically I'm agreeing with belledame again. Why is it so difficult to frame our arguments in moral terms? It was done effectively in the past. Every real victory achieved by the Labour movement was based on the diea of framing insane and/or dangerous working conditions as morally unnacceptable. How did we lose the ability to do that, and how do we get it back?

belledame222 said...

I'd say it does actually have to do with the religion deal, although not as simply as some people like to think (apparently there was a seriously obnoxious post by Jim Wallis of Sojourners just now, to the effect that this election results showed the failure of both the religious right and the "secular left." Which, excuse me? Dude, I agree that there's a gap between the secular left and the religious/spiritual left, but you ain't gonna bridge it that way; and frankly i don't see "religious left" as synonymous with "centrist" either, which is what he seems to be equating here. lame).

but you know: i think that fundamentalist, oppressive forms of religion manage to be so noxious and all-pervasive that people end up unconsciously internalizing its framework and some core assumptions even as they consciously reject the overt expressions of it, and/or shifting to the opposite extreme. so, it's kind of -accepting- that "this is what 'morality' is," you know, even as it rejects that "morality."

also see: people who respond to abusive home environments by becoming incredibly conflict-averse, terrified of anger, etc. I think actually you know a lot of that fear is about one's -own- anger at least as much as bringing down the anger of someone -else;- that, they're used to.

but what's really terrifying is the prospect of being like the hated abuser, which is the secret fear, i think, when anger bubbles up.

anger itself is worth a post or two in its own right, too.

Unsane said...

Some people may be able to get some insights from Lacan -- Like Judith Butler and Zizek. However, my insight from Lacan is this: "You have been conditioned to be bourgeois and to trust society's valuations of you and not your instincts. Behold you are fucked. The best thing you can do is to realise it, so that you don't make it any worse."

And well, whilst I think that this advice is timely and applies to some people, I don't think I've ever been that fucked. I do think that some people are, though, and I suspect it has to do with being brought up in too controlled an environment, in a Modern industrialised society. Some children have never been given the chance to play freely enough to find their own value systems to a large degree. Society's values are all they have to rely upon -- and these are often internalised in very rigid forms. Hence Lacan.

And yes, I agree with Cassandra, that having lost the moral high ground the left is well and truly lost.

Tom Nolan said...

Perhaps there's something even more essential than childhood experiences at work: the commitment any sentient being must make, if it's to survive at all, to a line of action.

If I find myself on a desert island with no means of sustenance and a limited amount of time to remedy that situation, I might begin by trying to make traps to catch the animals around. If, in the middle of building them, I realize that a better bet would be to try to hunt the animals instead, I could put my previous efforts aside in order to begin fabricating a bow and arrow. While whittling away a branch to make them, however, I remember that the seas round here are abundant in fish, and that these offer a better chance still. I start stringing together vines to make nets...but don't finish because by this time I've died of inanition.

In order to be efficacious we need to follow a single line of action. It may not be the best possible one (it's unlikely to be) but too much prevarication could be fatal: our conscience that we aren't going about things in the right way a siren voice to be ignored. Being sentient gives us a huge advantage over none sentient creatures, but we also need to make a decision and get on with things.

The result: a creature that has to think but also yearns for certainty. And whereas in the matter of desert-island nourishment the question of how best to feed oneself could be easily decided if one only had time, in questions of morality no amount of debate could bring us to an indubitable "balance". So we are forced, for practical purposes, to make a decision one way or the other.

Anyone remember Hans Castorp in "Der Zauberberg": he hesitates between different ideologies while the evidence for and against mounts up endlessly? His is a truly open mind - and it's quite incapable of action.

Most of us aspire to be morally and politically effective as well as curious, and we can only do that by making a decision which is always theoretically premature and then ignoring or shutting down (to one degree or another) the knowledge that it *is* premature.

Thus the perennial attraction of ways of thinking which expressly forbid the indulgence of doubt as impious: they appeal to an instinct which we are bound to have.

Make any sense?

I'm pleased to see that you're an Orwell fan, Belledame. I sort of guessed you were one, though, even before you mentioned him (you were quoting him quoting Auden's "September 1939", I remember).

R. Mildred said...

but you know: i think that fundamentalist, oppressive forms of religion manage to be so noxious and all-pervasive that people end up unconsciously internalizing its framework and some core assumptions even as they consciously reject the overt expressions of it, and/or shifting to the opposite extreme. so, it's kind of -accepting- that "this is what 'morality' is," you know, even as it rejects that "morality."

Well that's mostly due to those two extremist responses being the easiest ones to make, being nuanced, finding a balance between accepting an oppressive enviroment and rejecting it to such an extent that you create another oppressive one to replace it, is fuckign HARD, because you ahve ot evaluate yourself, and reevaluate yourself and occasionally just accept that you're a total asshole.

belledame222 said...

yah, but a -nuanced- asshole. totally.

FoolishOwl said...

I can see a number of the features discussed here in some of the nuttier sectarian left groups I've had to deal with, and they're valid criticisms.

This sort of thing does tend to make me a little worried, though, as it's "common sense" that any socialist group, particularly a Leninist one, is a "cult." It's an understandable mistake, given the nutty sectarians on the one hand, the apologists for Stalinist dictatorships on the other hand, and the police states that insisted they were socialist and dealt harshly with dissenters on the gripping hand.

(There are also dilettantes who refuse to do any more work than they find amusing, and regard anyone who talks about the necessity of "discipline," to be therefore some kind of cultist. They're wankers, of course.)

Where I see this really becoming a problem is that in a lot of situations, building a revolutionary party on Leninist lines is the natural conclusion to the problems of a political movement, but activists will follow "common sense" and reject that approach, which means that when the movement falters, it disintegrates and leaves little to build upon.

Also, just in terms of theory, it seems like even people who identify as Marxists will reject the principle of totality, of understanding everything as connected in a general social structure that can be analyzed and understood.

I've run into enough vulgar Marxists whose understanding of the centrality of class means lopping off any complexities, Procrustean fashion, to fit their narrow understanding. Still, I regard understanding totality as a necessity and a challenge, to explain all forms of oppression as connected and rooted in the class system, without resorting to reductive thinking.

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