All posts by Bruce Lerro

In the Crevices Between Submission and Revolution: Disguised and Public Resistance in Caste, Slave, and Feudal Societies Part I



Simplistic notions of Domination and Resistance: Polarized Dualities

When we examine the relations between those in power and those who are subordinate, a typical way of framing these relationships is as a duality. On one hand, those in power are ruling using various power bases such as force, coercion, and/or charisma. The impact of these power bases keeps people passive. In fact, some claim that that powerless people come to agree they deserve to be in the position they are in. At the other extreme are open insurrections where the powerless temporarily rebel or even enact a revolution to overthrow those in power. The problem is that there are no in-between stages or a spectrum between pure submission on the one hand and revolution on the other.

From force to coercion

The ultimate basis of domination in complex state societies is force. However, the use of constant force only works in times of conquest or open rebellions. When domination acquires a kind of social continuity, other forms of dominance are set in motion. James C. Scott, in his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance uses his experience as a sheep herder to compare the situation of sheep penned in by an electric fence with the dominant relations in human society.

If sheep are pastured in a field surrounded by a powerful electric fence, they will at first blunder into it and experience the painful shock. Once conditioned to the fence, the sheep will graze at a respectful distance. Occasionally, after working on the fence, I have forgotten to switch on the power again for days at a time, during which the sheep continue to avoid it. The fence continues to have the same associations for them despite the fact that the invisible power has been cut. (48)

In human affairs, this captures the movement from the use of force to coercion or the threat of force. However, the analogy breaks down when we compare the difference between the motivations and actions of sheep and humans.

With sheep we may only assume a constant desire to get to the pasture beyond the fence – it is generally greener on the other side of the fence since they will have grazed everything on their side. With tenants or sharecroppers, we may assume both a constant testing through poaching, pilfering…and a cultural capacity for collective anger and revenge. The point is that the symbols of power, provided that their potency was once experienced may continue to exert influence after they may have lost most or all of their effective power. (48)

The problem with social scientific understandings of power dynamics is that there is not much explanation of what is in between submission and revolution. But James C. Scott argues that rarely can we see a case where an individual slave, untouchable, or serf is being either entirely submissive or entirely insubordinate. In between submission/acceptance and open revolution there are other states of power.

Barrington Moore widens the spectrum between complete submission and revolution by arguing there are two other grades of resistance before the third stage of revolution:

  • lower classes criticize some of the dominant stratum for having violated the norms by which they claim to rule;
  • the lower classes accuse the entire stratum of failing to observe the principles of its rule;
  • the lower classes repudiate the very principles by which the dominant stratum justifies its dominance. This would be to identify with alternatives to the dominant system.

Scott argues that the historical evidence clearly shows that subordinate groups have been capable of revolutionary thought that repudiates existing forms of domination. However, subordinate groups are not born with revolutionary consciousness. They prefer squatting to a defiant land invasion. They prefer evasion of taxes to a tax riot. They would prefer poaching or pilfering to direct appropriation. It is only when these behind-the-scenes measures fail that they might be open to more drastic measures. Scott argues that there is a whole spectrum of resistance that occurs before even the first of Moore’s three gradients, as we shall see shortly.

My presentation of Scott’s work has five parts. In this introductory section, I will discuss three theories of submission, “thick”, “thin” and “paper thin” states of submission. Then I will probe into Scott’s three dimensions of submission including material, status and ideological dimensions. In the second section I will cover what Scott calls the “public transcript“ which is dominated by elites. These forms include things like parades and coronations and control of language. There are also forms of resistance such as the gathering of crowds and how terrifying they were to elites because they were public gatherings of subordinates without authorization. Interpersonal forms of resistance include mocking body language and verbal language including voice intonation and sarcasm. This will conclude Part I of this article.

In Part II I describe Scott’s notion of the hidden transcript. Hidden transcripts require secret social sites in which to discuss, rehearse and resist elites. Elites attempt to minimize this hidden transcript by taking away social sites and attempting to atomize individuals. In the second section of Part II, I discuss two forms of resistance that come out of the hidden transcript. One is social-psychological strategies and the other is the cultural strategies of resistance. In the last section of Part II, I describe Scott’s analysis of how the process of resistance turns into open insubordination. This is the electrifying time when the hidden transcript goes public. The general movement of both articles goes from the public transcript controlled by elites, to hidden transcripts controlled by subordinates to a return to the public transcript, this time controlled by subordinates who are now becoming insubordinate.

Theories of submission

When the upper class has power in everyday life, force is not used directly to keep the lower classes continuing to produce a surplus but by enacting a public display of their submission though speech, gesture and manners. How do we make sense of how this can happen? For liberal pluralists, the absence of significant protest or radical opposition is taken as a sign of lower-class satisfaction with the existing order. John C. Scott disagrees.

Thick and thin forms of submission

At the other extreme of the political spectrum, “fundamentalist” Marxists contend that on a deep level, perhaps on an unconscious level, the lower classes are aware that their position is unjust and in revolutionary situations  will discover what has been buried inside them. According to them, in revolutionary situations the lower classes will become a “class-for-itself”. How do these Marxists explain the consciousness of the lower classes in non-revolutionary situations? They contend that in these times the working class has been convinced that the upper-class justifications for their power are legitimate – and they actively believe in those values. They consent to their position. This is what Marx called “false consciousness” or class-in-itself mind-set. Scott labels these Marxist depictions of the lower classes as a “thick forms of consciousness.” This means that as people become socialized, the mask that they wear to do their job and reproduce hierarchical relations grows slowly onto their face and over the long-haul the face becomes the mask.

I find this term “fundamentalist” useful to describe a scholastic approach of some Marxists to socio-historical issues which rely too heavily on original texts to explain new events in the world and resist dialectical incorporation of new research which has emerged since the text was  written. In addition, there is a denial of the fact that some of Marx’s predictions were simply wrong.

Both liberals and fundamental Marxists agree that the lower classes in their normal conditions are satisfied or have “bought” the existence of class society. More skeptical of this are those left-wing critics who think the lower classes are unhappy with their situation but they think it is natural and inevitable. Instead of being satisfied or yielding consent, they are resigned to their situation. Scott calls this theory “thin” forms of lower-class submission. This is close to what Gaventa calls intimidation or the rule of anticipated reactions. This means the lower classes elect not to challenge elites because they anticipate the sanctions that will be brought against them. It is an estimate of the hopeless odds which discourage a challenge. Zygmunt Bauman sees power relations as being kept intact because alternatives to the current structure are excluded. He says “The dominant culture consists of transforming everything which is not inevitable into the improbable.” Here there is still a mask but it is thinner. The lower classes are less “snowed”.                                                           

Scott’s super-thin forms of submission

From Scott’s research, he thinks there is little evidence for the ideological incorporation of the lower classes and much evidence that the dominant ideology gives support and cohesion to the upper class rather than the lower classes, similar to pep rallies.  For Scott, what both thin and thick forms of consciousness don’t explain is how social change could ever originate from below. Instead, he argues that all these theories miss the disguised and public forms of resistance which are the subject of this essay. Scott says that these “in-between” forms of resistance are predominant in caste, feudal, and, slave societies.

Besides historical study, Scott draws from social reactance theory. Social reactance theory works on the assumption that there is a human desire for freedom and autonomy. When subordinates feel that their subordination is freely chosen, they are most likely to comply. When subordination is perceived as not freely chosen, there is resistance. In persuasive communication studies, when threats are added to a persuasive communication, they reduce the degree of attitude change. In fact, threatened choice alternatively tends to become more attractive. For Scott, there is little chance that acting with a mask will appreciably affect the face of the actor. If it does, there is a better chance the face behind the mask will, in reaction, grow to look less like the mask, rather than more like it. Nevertheless, Scott specifies 3 conditions under which a “paper thin” mask metaphor may be apt:

  • when there is a good chance a good many subordinates will eventually come to occupy positions of power. This encourages patience, emulation and explains why age graded systems of domination have such durability; and
  • when subordinates are completely atomized, kept under close observation and have no opportunity to talk things over or engage in either public or disguised resistance. This might occur when subordinate groups are divided by geography, culture and language.
  • When there is a promise of being set free in return for a record of service and compliance. 

Scott’s work is the study of forms of resistance which exist in everyday life and are not revolutionary but exist as a kind of guerrilla warfare. His studies are drawn from pre-capitalist hierarchical societies including the reports of slaves, serfs, and untouchables. He ignores the specific differences between slave systems in North America or South America as well as differences between agricultural civilizations in China and India and European feudalism. He claims that his analysis has less relevance to forms of domination in industrial capitalist countries such as scientific techniques, bureaucratic rules or capitalist forces of supply and demand. Scott’s work is an attempt to track how struggles of lords and serfs, slave owners and slaves, Brahmins and untouchables are played out under coercive, rather than force conditions in everyday life.

Scott’s three-dimensional theory of subordination and resistance: material (technological and economic) status and ideological

James Scott divides the political economy of domination and submission into three dimensions: material domination and material resistance; status domination and status resistance; and ideological domination and ideological resistance. Please see Table 2 for an overview of how these dimensions play themselves out in dominance and resistance situations. Material domination includes the appropriation of grain, taxes, and labor by agricultural elites. Status domination consists of forcing subordinates to enact their subordination through ritual humiliations, etiquette, demeanor, gestures, verbal language such as “my lord,” or “your highness”. Soft speech levels include who speaks first to whom, codes of eating, dressing, bathing, cultural taste, and who gives way to whom in public.

Status indignities form a social-psychological bridge between the subordinates’ material condition and cultural ideological justifications for why they are in the state they are in. Status indignities are the subjective and inter-subjective experience of being poor and landless. For example, they are in psychological despair because they cannot afford to feed guests on the feast of Ramadan; they are upset by wealthy people who pass him on the village path without uttering a greeting; he cannot bury his parents properly or their daughter will marry late, if at all because she lacks a dowry. The worst indignities are suffered by audiences of those who form the social source for one’s sense of self-esteem – that is closest friends, families, and neighbors. Ideological domination includes whatever religious justifications exist for why the upper classes deserve to be in the position they are in. Scott calls all three dimensions the “public transcript”.

Material resistance is divided into two types, public resistance and disguised resistance (cells 2 and 3 of table 2.) Public material resistance is what you might suspect. The usual tactics used by subordinate groups in reformist or revolutionary situations include petitions, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, and land invasions. Public status resistance includes insubordinate gestures, postures, and open desecration of status symbols. This might include the victim’s pleasure at seeing superiors dressed down by their superiors. Once this occurs, things are never the same. Public ideological resistance includes counter ideologies which propagate equality, such as liberalism or socialism. They might also include religious heresies of spiritual equality.

The three dimensions of public dominance correspond to what most sociologists and theories of power address. Scott might call this “high politics”. Formal political organization is the realm of elites where resolutions, declarations, and laws are enacted by politicians used in written records, news stories, and law suits.  In countries with a liberal industrial capitalist orientation, an exclusive concern with open political action will capture and normalize some forms of resistance such as petitions, demonstrations, boycotts and group organizing to make them ineffective. Political liberties of speech and association have lowered the risks and difficulty of open political expression.

But in conservative, dictatorship, industrial capitalist societies or in the slave, caste, and feudal societies most people are subjects, not citizens. If high politics is considered to be all of what politics is, then it appears that subordinate groups in these societies lack a political life, unless they engage in strikes, rebellions, or revolutions  – that is, “resistant” politics (second cell).

“Infrapolitics” is the circumspect struggle waged daily by subordinate groups and is like infrared rays, beyond the visible end of the spectrum. If formal political organization is the realm of elites, infrapolitics is the realm of informal leadership of nonelites, of conversation and oral discourse. “Infrapolitics” provides much of the cultural and structural underpinning for the more visible political resistance that may come later. Infrapolitics is a kind of guerrilla warfare where one side advances to see if it its tactics survive or are attacked and if so, with what strength? This is the subject of Scott’s work. He argues that to focus on the visible coastline of high politics misses the continent of infrapolitics.

Forms of disguised infrapolitics fall into three dimensions, material disguised resistance, status disguised resistance and ideological disguised resistance. Together all three are called “the hidden transcript.” Scott’s interest is in the status and ideological dimensions rather than the material dimension of infrapolitics because the material dimension has already been covered by Marxist fundamentalism.

Direct resistance by disguised resisters includes masked appropriations of food or land and anonymous threats. Practices of material disguised resistance include poaching, squatting, desertion, evasions, or fraudulent declarations of the amount of land farmed. In addition, direct resistance can include simple failures to declare land, underpayment, delivery of paddy spoiled by moisture or contaminated with rocks and mud, and foot-dragging. The lower classes can use gullibility and ignorance that are elite stereotypes of them such. These may incluede “laziness” to do less work and resist taxes, land dues, conscription and grain appropriation. In playing dumb, subordinate make creative use of the stereotypes intended to stigmatize them. Refusal to understand is also a form of class struggle.

Status disguised resistance includes what subordinates say and do with each other behind closed doors to counter status insults. This includes rituals of aggression, tales of revenge, gossip, rumor, and the creation of autonomous social sites. Gossip and rumor are designed to have a double meaning. This applies also to folk tales, jokes, songs, rituals, codes, and euphemisms.

Ideological, disguised resistance includes the development of dissident subcultures, millennial religions, myths of social banditry, and the return of the good king, carnival and world-upside down arts and crafts, which was also very powerful. Ideological disguised resistance also has a double meaning such as jokes, euphemisms, and the Br’er Rabbit stories of slaves. Altogether, there are six forms of resistance, three forms of public resistance, and three forms of disguised resistance. The table below helps to differentiate them.

The Public Transcript of Domination and Resistance

The public transcript is the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate them. The public transcript is the self-portrait of the dominant elites as they would have themselves seen. This can take the form of collective performances such as public displays with little interpersonal interaction and interpersonal performances where there is actual dialogue.

Dominance performances: parades and coronations

Formal ceremonies such as parades, inaugurations, processions, and coronations celebrate and dramatize the rule of dominators. They are choreographed in such a way as to prevent surprises. All parades imply a hierarchical order, a precise gradation of status, with the king at the head and the lowliest at the rear. They are authoritarian gatherings. In formal ceremonies, subordinates only gather when they are authorized.

Rather like iron filings aligned by a powerful magnet, subordinates are gathered in an arrangement and for purposes determined by their superiors…

In a parade, there are no horizontal links among subordinates. Without the hierarchy and authority that knits them into a unit they appear as  mere atoms with no social existence….subordinates are nothing but potatoes in a sack (61-62)

Who are these performances for? At first guess, you might think that coronations serve the purpose of displaying to their subordinates the might and coordination of the dominant. But according to Scott, they are not very successful in doing this. He claims that this domination performances is a kind of self-hypnosis within ruling groups to buck up their courage. The authorities want to create appearance of unanimity among ruling groups. This is why it is very important that ruling classes suppress members of their own class from disagreeing publicly.

Public Transcripts of Domination: Interpersonal

Deferential behavior by subordinates in public interactions includes encouraging smiles, appreciative laughter and conformity in facial expression and gesture. Gender differences in language are interesting here. For example, women use tag questions and a rising tone at the end of a declarative sentence, including the use of hyper-polite tones, linguistic hedges, stammering, and no public joking. (Scott says it is interesting to consider that there are few women comedians.) Subordination and domination are built into the different usages in terms of bodily functions. Scott sites the following examples: “Whereas commoners bathe, the Sultan sprinkles himself; while commoners walk, the Sultan progresses (assuming a smooth, gliding motion); while commoners sleep, the Sultan reclines.” In slave societies, slaves are referred to as boys, whereas whites are referenced as “mister”.

The upper classes also use euphemisms, that is verbal language, gestures, architecture, ritual actions, and public ceremonies to obscure the ultimate force-basis use of rule. For example in terms of language,  “pacification” is used instead of “armed attack and occupation”; “calming” for “confinement by straightjacket”; “capital punishment” for “state execution”; “re-education camps” for “prison for political opponents”; and “trade in ebony wood” for “traffic in slaves”. Scott says when bosses fire workers they say “we had to let them go”, as if workers in question were mercifully released like dogs straining on their leashes.

On the other hand, the practices of their opponents are vilified and presented in categories which delegitimize their opposition. Authorities deny rebels the status of public discourse and try to assimilate their acts into a category that minimizes the political challenge by calling them bandits and criminals, hooligans, or mentally deranged. Religious practices that challenge the corrupt practices of the authorities are labeled heresy, Satanism, or witchcraft.

Public transcripts of resistance: crowds

An unauthorized gathering was potentially threatening. It is so threatening to the upper classes that they call such gatherings “mobs” or “rabble”. In other words, they think people run amok because they have no authorities ruling over them. A gathering is an unauthorized coordination of subordinates by subordinates.

In an agricultural bureaucratic state in the East or a feudal society in the West, the presentation of a petition to the ruler to redress peasant grievances was itself a capital crime.  Gatherings of five or more slaves without the presence of a white observer were forbidden. The authorities were uneasy about the holidays because they lacked the structure of work and brought together large numbers of slaves. This is why there was a law in France in 1838 forbidding public discussion between work peers.

Pubic transcripts of resistance: interpersonal

Those in subordinate positions may refuse to enact submissive facial gestures, make way for elites on the street, or addressing them with mock intonations or exaggerated submissiveness, refusal to laugh at jokes of the upper classes.

Public transcripts of resistance: ideological

Holding the elites’ feet to the fire

Elites cannot do just as they please. Because much of their power is legitimized, they must at least make a passable attempt to perform some valuable social functions. This requires that it must:

  • specify the claims to legitimacy it makes;
  • develop discursive affirmations it stages for the public transcript;
  • identify aspects of power relations it will seek to hide (its dirty linen);
  • specify the acts and gestures that will undermine its claim to legitimacy;
  • tolerate critiques that are possible within its frame of reference; and
  • identify the ideas and actions that will represent a repudiation of profanation of the form of domination in its entirety.

Elites are vulnerable to attack if these conditions are compromised.

For example, in feudalism, honor, noblesseoblige, bravery, and expansive generosity are expected from the aristocrats. The feudal contract would be negated by any conduct that violated these affirmations such as cowardice, petty bargaining, stinginess, the presence of runaway serfs, and failure to physically protect serfs. In the case of the Brahmins, elites would need to possess superior karma, vital ritual services, refinement in manner, presiding at key rites of birth, and observance of taboos are expected.

Return of the Just King

Very often the lower classes play off the king against the aristocracy. It is the king who represents the true interests of the serfs, untouchables, or slaves against the abuses of the nobles. Scott argues that, Lenin notwithstanding, there is simply no evidence that the myth of the Czar promoted political passivity among the peasantry. Furthermore, there is a fair amount of evidence that the myth facilitated peasant resistance. When petitions to the Czar failed, instead of turning on the Czar, serfs then suspected that an imposter, a false czar was on the throne. Under the reign of Catherine II, there were at least 26 pretenders. Pugachev, the leader of one of the greatest peasant rebellions, owed his success in part to his claim to be Czar Peter III. The myth of the czar could transmute the peasantry’s violent resistance to oppression to any act of loyalty to the Crown.

Fundamentalist Marxists, using thick forms of subordinate consciousness, claim that the myth of the kind czar is an ideological creation of the monarchy, then appropriated and reinterpreted by the peasantry. Scott argues that these myths were the joint product of a historic struggle rather like a ferocious argument in which the basic terms – simple peasant, benevolent czar – are shared but in which interpretations follow wildly divergent paths in accordance with vital interests.

Throughout Europe and southeast Asia there are long traditions of the return of a just king. Indian untouchables have imagined that Orthodox Hinduism has hidden sacred texts proving their equality. Slaves have imagined a day when they would be free and slave owners punished for their tyranny. Contrary to Gramsci, radicalism may be less likely to arise among disadvantaged groups who fail to take the dominant ideology seriously because they haven’t yet constructed an alternative.


Subordination requires a credible performance of humility and deference, while domination requires a performance of haughtiness and mastery. Transgresses of script have more serious consequences for subordinates, and subordinates are closer observers of the dominant because there is more to lose. The same is true for women in relation to men and children and in relation to their parents. People in dominant positions think characteristics of subordinates are inborn, rather than staged for them.

Coming Attractions

Up to now all the resistance offered by subordinates does not include any systematic interpersonal discussion by them. There must be a specific social gathering site, usually in secret where subordinates can speak freely. Secondly, those subordinates must be trustworthy, often members of the same slave master family, kin or neighbors, and have very specific working conditions as we shall see in Part II. We will explore two forms of disguise. Disguising the message and disguising the messenger. What is the place of myth and folktales? Are these stories diversions from revolution or rehearsals for it? Is smashing statues or reversing roles in carnival cathartic releases which then make people more docile or do they provide people with a structure for systematic revolt? Finally, what are the conditions when the hidden transcript of resistance finally turns into a public transcript of insubordination or revolution?

All of this will be covered in Part II.



The post In the Crevices Between Submission and Revolution: Disguised and Public Resistance in Caste, Slave, and Feudal Societies Part I first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Aryan Right-Wing Mythology for the New Age: Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell


My three-year stint in the New Age

In 1984 at the age of 36, I decided to return to school with the intention of becoming an art therapist. I attended Antioch University in San Francisco for my undergraduate degree and then went to a New Age spirituality school the following year for my master’s degree (California Institute of Integral Studies). At the time, Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell were treated as if they were gods. On the surface, it seemed like a good fit for me. After all, as an art therapist I could work with images, and Jungians were all about images. I was attracted to the prospect of making images not as art-for-art’s-sake, but in the service of spirituality or even pagan magic. Mircea Eliade was the guru of comparative religion. He wrote a 3 volume set on A History of Religious Ideas and like Jung, he thought modern life was a degeneration from ancient or even tribal times. Most likeable of all was Joseph Campbell. I mean, watching him on Bill Moyers, what’s not to like? I was thrilled by the sweep of his Hero with a Thousand Faces and I read his four-volume comparative mythology. I read all these books before I re-entered college, so I knew exactly what I was getting into. But there was a fly in the ointment. I was (and am) a materialist Marxist and had no intention of giving that up. Plus, I went to school in very conservative times, five years into Reagan’s two years of presidencies. It wasn’t until later that I realized how politically conservative Jung, Eliade and Campbell actually were. Further, thanks to Robert Ellwood’s book The Politics of Myth, I realized that they were all anti-Communist as well. This article is about Ellwood’s book. Besides Ellwood, other sources for this article are The Jung Cult and the Aryan Christ, both by Richard Noll.

Why was right-wing mythology attractive in post-World World II Yankeedom?

After World War II, there was an upsurge of interest in mythology in the United States. Why was this? Mythology is typically associated with time periods that are prior to the 19th century – the Greeks, the Romans, or the Renaissance. It seemed that the philosophy of the Enlightenment had buried mythology as another indicator that the days of conventional religion, magic and storytelling were over. But the industrialization process, along with two world wars and the rise of fascism seemed to put a damper on Enlightenment dreams for Europe. Not only this, but myth was used by European countries throughout the 19th centuries to build nationalist sentiments to fuel the war. Myth was an expression of the connection between collective humanity (not individuals) and an animated spiritualized nature (not inert). Myth is experienced through imagination, intuition, poetic stories, and rites.  There was an anti-Christian, anti-Jewish strain since both these mainstream religions were modernist and rejected myth for history. “Now we see where history has led us”, the mythologists might say.  If the modern world was fallen, the shortest road to paradise might lead backward to the Middle Ages, the ancient world or even to tribal societies.

It is completely understandable that Europeans might be drawn to myth because of the casualties, whether or not they won or lost the war.  After all, these mass murders were achieved with modern weapons.  But why would myth become popular in the United States that was on the winning side of the war and had suffered few causalities comparatively speaking? All three mythologists developed a following in the United States. In addition, the United States was anti-communist in the 1950s. Communism was associated with the “progress” orientation of the modern world. Why would the Yankee population reject both liberal modernity and communist modernity? The answer is that it was only the upper and upper-middle classes in Yankeedom that was enthralled with mythology. The middle and working classes were satisfied with their traditional religions.

Is myth inevitably associated with the right wing?

A second issue worth discussing is the politics of myth. All three mythologists we study – Jung, Eliade and Campbell – were associated with the extreme right. Why is this? Is there something about socialism that makes it less possible to use mythology? Some may say that the further to the left you go on the political spectrum the more skeptical people become about religion or mythology. But Jung, Eliade, and Campbell would argue that myth is not a stage of social evolution, nor does it occupy a particular place on the political spectrum. They would say myth is a set of rites and stories present in all societies. If we take this to be true, that will mean myth would be operative across the entire political spectrum.  In other words, it doesn’t explain why the left has not used myth more.

Commonalities Among Post-World War II Mythologists

Condemning the secular Enlightenment

All three mythologists had major problems with the beliefs and institutions of modernity. They each thought Enlightenment secularism, empiricism, and rationality was responsible for the sad shape the world was in during their time. Jung thought that without spiritual institutions, the darker side of humanity runs rampant. He believed that this is true because this dark side is not sublimated through spiritual practices such as ritual enactments and mythic storytelling. The two world wars were the result of the collective unconscious run amok. Were people in touch with their mythological roots, and brought them to life regularly, they would not act them out in wars.

Western science is guilty of hubris

All mythologists implicate science in the state of the world because science is guilty of hubris in thinking that humanity can chart its own course. Quantitative measurement, statistics, probability, rationality, and objectivity took the heart and soul out of life. Personal experience, storytelling, use of imagination, and appreciation of mystery were left high and dry in this type of world.

The Jewish nature of capitalism

Another modern institution these mythologists condemned was capitalism. Capitalism hollowed out and commercialized religious holidays. While none of these mythologists were pro capitalist, it is easy to imagine that Joseph Campbell might support the pre-corporate capitalism of small traders. What is more important is that all three tended to connect capitalism to the Jews. Instead of critically examining the economic system of capitalism, they blamed the Jews in subtle ways for the spiritual poverty of the West. It is almost as if they were implying that if it wasn’t for the Jews, capitalism would be fine.

Perennial esoteric spirituality

However, to these mythologists, not all spiritual institutions are equally valuable. All three mythologists were, in different ways, hostile to the Jewish and Christian religion. All believed they were complicit in creating modernist problems. These religions denied the importance of spiritual experience and were marred in thin superstitious rituals and material wealth. Their sacred presences that were simplistic dualities of good and evil and they failed to address complexities of modern life. Mythological stories are really complex stories and solutions to common human problems that have been lost, marginalized, and demonized by Western religion. All three mythologists were followers of a spiritual Gnostic tradition which claims there is a hidden spiritual knowledge that the ancients were aware of but which had been lost, thanks to modernity. This Gnostic tradition teaches that the material world is unreformable and it is better to withdraw from it in order to perfect itself. The Gnostics believed that exoteric religion was institutionalized religion for the masses and they thought the Enlightenment was right to criticize them. However, all religion has an esoteric hidden teaching that contains the best of all religion and was followed by the great prophets of all these religions.

Though Jungian spirituality is highly idiosyncratic, it is fair to say that Jung admired what he imagined to be pre-Christian German paganism. If James Hillman is any indicator, Jungian psychology is a modern version of the archetypal, polytheistic psychology of the Renaissance. The roots of Eliade’s religious beliefs are Hindu’s and Vedanta’s tradition of yoga. According to Robert Elwood, Campbell flirted with Hindu traditions but ultimately settled with the pagan traditions in the West, from Homer to the Holy Grail. He also loved Native American mythology.

Scholarship lacks time and space grounding

In terms of scholarship, all three mythologists were interested in literary mythology as opposed to folklore. Not surprisingly, they all were influenced by the German romantics – Herder, Schelling, and Wilhelm Wundt. As might be expected by their rejection of science, all three mythologists were criticized by anthropologists and history scientists for their universalizing religious symbols, myths, and rituals. None of them did fieldwork or research in philology, textural studies. More importantly, all three were notorious for decontextualizing mythology from the technological, economic, and political circumstances in which myths were formed. In other words, these mythologists abstracted and compared myths independently of the time and place in which they occurred. They were opposed to any notion of cultural evolution. They saw no pattern of myths as they evolved over time and space. Since myths are supposedly eternal the time and place they occurred in was irrelevant.

Political reactionaries

To be a reactionary means to want to return to an earlier time politically. This is a common theme of all romantics. Where do these mythologists want to go? Ellwood argued that Jung wants to return to a medieval time in which all the world was a sacred symbol, where people knew how to do rituals, and when storytelling was meaningful rather than hollow. Eliade yearns for the 19th century Romanian Renaissance of peasant culture. Campbell’s ideal time seems to be during the period of pioneers, cowboys, and native Americans before they all were overshadowed by cities, industry, and commerce.

In the world of practical politics, Jung was initially sympathetic to the Nazis in the early years, but soon regretted it. Likewise, Eliade had connections with the fascist Romanian Iron Guard in the 30s but withdrew from them around 1940. Ellwood says that Joseph Campbell was easily the most right-wing of the three. Even by 1940 he was slow in understanding the destructiveness of the Nazis. As a teacher at Sarah Lawrence, he also was not supportive of racial minorities and feminism in the 1960s and threatened to fail students if they went to protests. Ellwood characterizes Campbell as to the right of William Buckley. All three mythologists were anti-communists with Campbell being the most extreme. The influences on all three mythologists were either fascists or conservatives including Nietzsche, Sorel, Ortega y Gasset, Spengler, Heidegger Frobenius, and Thomas Mann.

Interestingly, the publisher of both Campbell’s and Jung’s work, Bollington, was owned by Paul Mellon, and related to Andrew Mellon. Given the conservative tendencies of Jung and Campbell, it is not surprising that they found so much money to “spread their word” at a time of rabid anti-communism in the fifties. Norbert Frye did much to make mythic analysis of Shakespeare and other literature an academic fashion.

All three lost credibility in the sixties as many people were breaking away from the individualism these mythologists supported. They were becoming more political and more critical of the capitalism Mellon lived and died by. It wasn’t until the mid 1970s when the country turned more conservative and the New Age grew during the counterculture that Jung, Eliade and Campbell regained popularity.

Carl Gustav Jung and Wotan’s Return

Collective unconscious

Despite his dabblings into anthropology, (Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism) Freud was interested in the unconscious primarily as it related to the individual. But after Jung’s break with Freud in 1913, Jung underwent a spiritual crisis. He recovered, in part due to his experience of the unconscious that he perceived as collective. Whole nations and races had their own collective unconscious that could be tapped through their mythology and rites. Jung drew from a volkish German tradition that included sun worshiping movements as well as spiritualism and theosophy.

For Jung, the type of society had no independence from the psychological states of humanity. The type of human society was no more than a screen on which to project the storm and stresses of the soul of the group. This meant that the Germans had a collective unconscious as did the French, Italians, and the Spanish. Whether the society was tribal, feudal, or industrial capitalist was irrelevant. In the modern world the collective unconscious is repressed because religious rituals have lost their power and had been hollowed out by science, industrialization, and capitalism.

With the rise of cities and mass communication at the end of the 19th century, local communities were broken up. Masses of humanity became isolated, living next to each other without the community rituals that allowed them to maintain rhythm with the natural cycles of life. According to Ellwood, Jung agreed with Ortega y Gasset that there was a vast cloud of unreleased collective energy which accumulated with no rituals, symbols, or storytelling to ground the instincts and channel it into constructive outlets. The result is that when modern revolts, crazes, and fads emerge they combine the worst of tribal and modern life.

Political reactionary

As a conservative, Jung favored order, stability, and hierarchy. In his collective unconscious he had plenty of room for kings, queens, and warrior archetypes. Beyond his Swiss borders, he sometimes expressed admiration for Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy. Jung was very hostile to socialism and the prospect of levelling hierarchies. But the most controversial of all were Jung’s political attitude towards the Nazis. On the one hand, Ellwood tells us:

  • Most German protestant pastors (Jung’s ultimate roots) welcomed the accession of Hitler. They generally despised the Weimar regime for its cosmopolitan atheist or agnostic culture.
  • German volkish literature had broad distribution in Switzerland and its anti-Semitism was widespread.
  • Nazi groups and sympathizers within Germany were present in Swiss cities and towns.
  • Switzerland was bound economically to the Axis cause. Some 97% of Swiss exports went to Germany. Nazis had arrangements with Swiss banks.
  • Jung clearly had an anti-Jewish streak (as he did toward Christianity) and this was a foundation for his paganism. Jung talked about the rootlessness of Jewish intellectuals.

The Jew was domesticated to a higher degree than we are, but he is badly at a loss for that quality in man which roots him to the earth and draws new strength from below—a chthonic quality (57).

The Jews had a:

tendency of consciousness to autonomy with the risk of severing it almost entirely from its instinctual sources. (64)

The untimeliness of his writing about racial psychology at a time when millions of Jews were being slaughtered by Nazis says a great deal about Jung’s attitudes towards Jews. The weight of his authority and timing could only fan the flames of hatred of the Jews.

Qualifications about Jung’s anti-Jewish stance

To be fair to Jung, it is difficult for anyone to understand the full implications of a political movement when it is still in formation. Even people in the political center were sympathetic to the Nazis before they rose to power. The same is true for those who were initially supportive of the Soviet Union. Liberal intellectuals like John Dewey and Bertrand Russell were sympathetic to Russia. In the case of John Dewey, he maintained his sympathy as late as 1929 and well into the Stalinist era. Jung showed a very surprising lack of psychological depth in understanding the Nazi potential for mass violence. On the surface, the Nazis seemed to strive to undercut the alienation of mass society but instead returning to community roots. It is not so far-fetched to get behind this. By the beginning of World War II, Jung had recovered and was opposed to the Nazis.

The upsurge of the pagan god Wotan, like an extinct volcano roaring back to fiery life through National Socialism, could have given Jung a glimmer of hope since connections were culturally between the conscious and unconscious. This must have been a welcome relief to the thin modernistic anxiety of the Weimar republic.

We have to consider that Germany was home to some of the greatest scientists, philosophers, painters, and musicians for the last 300 years – Fichte, Kant, Hege and Leibniz. It was the home of the great science and industrial power that Germany became between 1850 and 1900. It is not far-fetched to think that whatever the Nazis were stirring up, it could be contained and integrated by the great traditions of Germany. Germany was a very civilized nation by European standards and by the end of the 19th century the envy of France and Britain.

If Jung were completely anti-Jewish, he wouldn’t have helped individual Jews such as Erich Neuman to escape.

No political scientist, natural scientist, philosopher, or artist can control what is done with their work. The Nazis made propagandic use of Jung, banning books and articles that were against them, and giving great attention to his writing that supported them. Whatever his upper-class public connections were, those connections were not strong enough to compete with the likes of the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

After World War II, Jung seemed to learn from his mistakes and there was no further mention in his work about earth-rootedness and lost communalism. Paradoxically, Jung became preoccupied with individuation, a very modernist conception he previously condemned.

Ellwood suggests that a truer picture of Jung’s political position was that of the conservative Edmund Burke. Like he, Burke of A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Jung was a romantic rather than a classicist. Unlike a classicist who held that what is most beautiful and what is tame, clear, and self-evident, Jung believed that it was the sublime that mattered – what is striking, irregular and mysterious.

Mircea Eliade and Nostalgia for the Sacred

Eliade’s life

Mircea Eliade led a tempestuous life in Romania for the first 38 years of his life. According to Ellwood, among other things he was a prolific and provocative newspaper columnist; a novelist whose works were praised extravagantly and denounced as pornographic; a dynamic lecturer at the University of Bucharest who virtually established the history of religions and Indology as disciplines; a political activist who was accused of fascism and a political prisoner for four months for his loyalties under the royal dictatorship of King Carol II.

Ellwood claims Eliade was the best known and most controversial of the passionate young Romanian intellectuals of his generation. He fled Romania after it became a satellite of the Soviet Union in 1945. In 1945 he taught at the Sorbonne in Paris, and then from 1956 on at the University of Chicago. In these roles he become the preeminent historian of religion of his time.

Rejection of secularism

Of the three mythologists, Eliade was the most uncompromising in rejecting the secular world. He rejected the scientific study of religion and its history and did not work to join with other scholars in their efforts to make religious studies in any way empirical. He thought the entire secular world is a poor cousin to the most important aspirations of life which are religious. For Eliade, ordinary means of knowledge based on the five senses are not only flawed but really spread a veil of maya (or illusion) over our knowledge of reality. He saw himself as a caretaker of spirituality in a secular age.  In the spirit of Indian idealism he saw the sacred, timeless as rich in being and the secular world as historical and degenerate.

Sacred space and time

To the secular, Eliade contrasted another kind of time, sacred time which is myth, not history. Myth foretells for us the re-enactment of the eternal time of Origins. Sacred space is the location where these myths are enacted. Geographically they are in the silent core of the whirling arms of the galaxies of secular life. In ancient civilizations the founding of a city was where the four directions met. In other words, the “heart” of downtown. These are the sacred places where myths are created.  Mandalas, mazes, or labyrinths of medieval Christianity help us to experience these centers of the world. These are devices for grounding consciousness.

History as an exile from eternity

Eliade believed that to live in a historical time and place was to live under fallen conditions. Mystical experience was to live beyond history and place. It is tempting to think that premodern societies were more akin to Eliade’s vision. But Eliade tells us that even primitive societies did not live in mythic time. They too saw mythic time as located in the misty past and they were living in degenerate times. However, they were at least committed at the beginning of every year to performing a ritual which restored mythic time and place. Eliade thought that the historical religions lost a sense of how to do this:

What I am sure of is that any future forms of religious experience will be quite different from those we are familiar with in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, all of which are fossilized, outmoded, and drained of all meaning (116)

Reasons for an anti-historical approach

As a result of World War I, Romania experienced a kind of national renaissance. They had regained a number of provinces which were historically Romanian and this greatly enlarged their territory and population. In 1932, there began a time of intense struggle in Romania and across Europe as the fascist right and communist left battled each other for control of the continent. Some wanted Romania to liberalize, become more cosmopolitan and follow the lead of the Enlightenment. Eliade and his friends wanted no part of this. For them, Western liberalism would hollow out the Romanian national spirit. The peasants would be left out along with Orthodox Romanians. Liberal nationalism would also hollow out the mythological and symbolic dimensions of nationalism. Lastly the corruption and incompetence of the shallow democratic monarchy that ruled Romania in those days helped to make Eliade skeptical of liberalism.

Eliade had thus experienced the terror of the failure of historical events to turn out as he and his generation had wished them. Strenski, in Thinking about Religion, suggests that Romania’s historical catastrophe might well have been influential in either reinforcing or initially shaping his later thought about religion because the history in Romania had been a disaster for Eliade. Speaking about World War Eliade wrote “Today the master of all of us is the war. It has confiscated the whole of contemporary history, the time in which we are fated to live. Even when we’re alone we think about the war all the time. That is, we’re slaves of history.”

Within history’s wreckage, it would not be far-fetched for someone like Eliade, who had internalized both yogic methods of attaining higher knowledge as well as Nae Ionescu’s irrational contempt for ordinary means of attaining knowledge, to feel that he could access higher and deeper ways of understanding religious data and escaping history.

Societies that deny myth have violent consequences

Like Jung, Eliade thought that myth is present in societies even when these societies deny its power. In fact, societies which ignore storytelling, rituals, and the acting out of instinctual drives are drenched with violence because the proper grounding in these processes are denied. He says that those on trial in the Soviet trials were like archetypal gods in archaic societies. Eliade challenges Marxism’s standing as a secular science and claims it an aggressively prophetic and polemical theology. Their hope for a communist Paradise in the future is really a projection of the wish for a politics of nostalgia for an egalitarian past.

Scholarship lack’s space and time constraints

Like Jung, Eliade’s claims for mythic experience rides roughshod over any kind of social evolution or cross-cultural differences. Eliade mushes together shamanism from all over the world and in different historical settings into a single religious experience. The shamanism of hunter-gatherers is the same as those of people in agricultural states to him. It doesn’t matter whether shamanism in practiced in Indonesia or Africa, it’s all the same experience. There is no sense that there is any evolution from shamanism to practicing yoga, or that the effects of social class may have anything to do with religious practice. Like Jung and Campbell, Eliade cherry-picks which will show commonalities while ignoring cross-cultural and historical variation.  He will treat all examples as uncritically equal from a range of sources and cultural contexts.  

Flirting with fascism?

The Legion of the Archangel Michael was a political and spiritual movement with fascist and anti-Jewish leanings powerful in Romania during the 1930s. The Legion came to be better known as the pro-Nazi Iron Guard, founded in 1927.  It was a movement dedicated to cultural and national renewal by an appeal to the spiritual roots of Romanian people. The Iron Guard’s spiritual, romantic, spiritual, and mythic propaganda was attractive to Eliade. Unlike comparable fascist type movements in Italy and Germany, the Legion was explicitly Christian, like Romania’s Eastern Orthodox Church. The Jews were not only hated as unpopular financiers and foreign intruders but also as godless Bolsheviks.

Yet although Eliade had always been a cultural nationalist who like to speak of Romanian messianism, these views usually were relatively non-political. He prided himself on his friendship with Jewish novelist, Mikhail Sebastian and took a relatively moderate public position on the Jewish question. However, he was friends with fascists who were very political. Ellwood points out:

No one was more influential for the young Eliade then the charismatic fascist leaning philosopher Nae Ionescu (1890-1940). He was friends with the Romanian fascist intellectual Emil Cioran (85) …Eliade seems to have been directly inspired by the death in battle of two Romanian legionnaires who volunteered to fight in the Spanish civil war on Franco’s anticommunist side (87). He found time to compose a book in praise of Portugal’s benevolent dictator Antonio Salazar (90).

In 1940, the Legion came to power in alliance with the king and a pro-Nazi military dictator, Ion Atones, to create a National Legionnaire State. Eliade was clearly shocked by a series of assassinations that went on in the process of the National Legionnaires’ rise to power:

Romanian anti-Semitic atrocities were exceeded only by the Nazis in numbers and brutality leaving scores of desecrated synagogues and thousands of mutilated corpses. (Yet) In his autobiographies both the mythology and atrocities of the Legion are passed over in silence (91-92)

Qualifications and rebuttals

As with Jung, it is probably unfair to expect Eliade to know the direction fascism was going to take before Hitler was elected. In addition, there is the window between 1933 and World War II. One author claims it is more reasonable to see Eliade more like the fellow-travelers of Soviet communism who gave up their association but never repudiated the ideology. Ellwood kindly suggests that his passion for Romania was really the searching of a wandering soul for solid ground, rather than a political commitment that it might have been for others. There is good reason to surmise that the terrible experience with the Legend solidified his commitment that history was terrifying and he was better off in the mythic world.

His later work is an attempt to universalize spiritual experience and is one hundred and eighty degrees on the opposite side of any kind of the ethnic/racial nationalism of The Guard. After 1945 Eliade showed no interest in the political world or its causes. With other Romanian exiles he formed a circle to sustain the culture of a free Romania and to publish Romanian texts that could not be published in Romania itself.

Yet unlike Jung, Eliade seemed much more committed to fascism by his silence over the atrocities against the Jews by Romanians and his support of Franco. Also, most writers do not write books about people, for example, Eliade’s book on Portugal’s dictator, Antonio Salazar, with whom they had no sympathies.

Joseph Campbell and the New Quest for the Holy Grail

Joseph Campbell was the best known of all interpreters of myth in late 20th century America due to his scholarly, but easy to read books, his legendary “performances” when lecturing at Sarah Lawrence College, and his discussions with Bill Moyers on PBS.

The life of Joseph Campbell

Campbell was born in 1904 to Irish American parents. Both his grandparents arrived in the United States as poor immigrants escaping the Irish potato famine. However, Joseph’s father became a successful salesman and Joseph was raised to upper-middle class status which allowed him to travel, attend private schools and be exposed to the art and culture of the world, including concerts, plays and museums. His parents were moderately committed to Catholicism. Like Eliade, Joseph was an avid Boy Scout.  After being taken by his father to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he cultivated a strong interest in Native Americans. Ellwood says he imitated their practices on camping trips.

Campbell began college at Dartmouth and then transferred to Columbia. He took comparative literature and anthropology with the cultural relativist, Franz Boas. His dissertation was on the Holy Grail.  He listened to Krishnamurti lecture in Paris on rejecting all dependence of external authority and possibly because of this, Campbell stopped attending Catholic Mass. In 1932 he travelled on a ship with a biological expedition to Alaska where he had first-hand observation of Native American culture. In 1934 he became a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College. He loved German culture and read Spengler and Leo Frobenius. In fact, the first course he taught was on Spenglerian morphology. His direction in mythology was under the influence of Spengler’s cultural morphology. All the Germans he read were anti-modernists and against Weimer Republic’s liberalism.

Through Thomas Mann he met Indologist Heinrich Zimmer in 1941 and through Zimmer met Swami Nikhil Ananda of the Vedanta Society. When Zimmer died in 1943, Campbell inherited the responsibility for editing Zimmer’s manuscripts. The Zimmer connection enabled Campbell to become attached to the famous Eranos conferences which included Eliade; Gershom Scholem who had revived the study of Jewish Qabalah, Henri Corbin who was interested in Iranian mysticism, as well as Jung. Campbell became a major figure in the world of mythology with the publication in 1949 of his great book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Campbell got to know Alan Watts but was never quite sure how much he liked the East. A trip to India left Campbell shaken with culture shock: heat, poverty, dirt, beggars, and the caste system. Also, at that time India was enamored with socialist visions and the prospect of friendship with the Soviet Union. By now, Campbell was on his way to being an anti-communist. Campbell turned Westward, towards the paganism from the Odyssey to the Holy Grail. Between 1959 to 1968, he wrote his great four-volume book on world mythology. For Campbell, the four functions of myth were:

  • Produce a mystical experience to awaken and maintain a sense of awe and gratitude
  • Create an image of the universe in accord with the scientific knowledge of the time
  • Implant a moral order
  • Give an account stage by stage through life

 Twentieth Century myths: individualism in space: Star Wars

In the application of myths to today, Campbell was no reactionary. He did not yearn for a yesterday in pristine animated nature where myths were enacted. He proposed the place for myths to play themselves out in the United States were in outer space. Outer space contains the location for enacting the heroes called to adventure comparable to the role of Arthurian fantasy or Wagner’s heroes in Germany. George Lucas had admired Campbell and so Campbell indirectly became associated with Star Wars. Six years later he became friends with Lucas and they were friends until Campbell died three years later.

Robert Ellwood makes a very interesting comparison between Star Trek and Star Wars as a way to demonstrate Campbell’s individualistic roots. Star Trek was about cooperation between the crew, not the individual. It isn’t even about the patriotism of, say, the United States. The crew members included people of many ethnicities. The series was about humanity in space. In these episodes, there was a direct struggle for power between humanity and extra-terrestrial civilizations. In the case of Star Wars, the theme was about the individual heroism of Luke Skywalker. He is a hero but doesn’t know it. The intelligent robots are a kind of companion animal like Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza.  In Star Wars, Arthurian Legend and Wagnerian cycles of myths all show the ultimate futility of grasping for political power. How convenient for the conservative ruling classes of the United States to encourage people to withdraw from political power engagements into the private world of individualistic mythological journeys.

What kind of society would a Campbell view of myth construct? A society of heroes like Luke Skywalker of Star Wars would follow their own myths. Ellwood says there would be a ground crew of non-heroes who sing the praise of heroes as they provide for the heroes’ material needs. In other words, social organization remains the same and is unimportant, unlike for the crew of Star Trek.


Campbell was not really a folklorist.  Folk tales were to him inferior, undeveloped, or degenerate in relation to the great mythologies of higher civilizations. He started his scholarly career in literature and cultural studies and approached myth though the eyes of a cultural critic. Let’s hear directly from Ellwood:

Though remarkably widely read in mythology, Campbell exhibited limited interest of the usual academic sort in his subject matter. He evinced little concern about mythic variants or philological issues. (130)

In his methods he used the traditional equipment of a literary critic – comparison and analogy.

Campbell was fundamentally literary. Most of Campbell’s work got a favorable hearing with literary and drama critics and the literate public than with professional folklorists or anthropologists. An American anthropologist said Campbell did not adequately distinguish between the Great and the Little traditions. Like Jung and Eliade, he picks and chooses mythological symbols from different times and places and universalizes them, leaving behind the political, economic, and technological conditions in which they are rooted.

Right-wing politics

As stated earlier, the German writers he read were anti-modernists and against the liberal Weimar Republic. Even by 1940-1941 he failed to grasp the threat posed by Hitler. By the early 1950s he saw liberty far more threatened by communism than by McCarthyism. Campbell was not supportive of the movements of the 1960s. He was reportedly anti-Jewish, but Larson’s biography states that Campbell was anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic. I doubt that Campbell had the political interest enough to understand the difference between the two. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, we might say that he disliked the Jewish religion because of its early history battling paganism and its hostility to mythology in favor of its championing of history.

In spite of this conservative orientation, he was extremely popular at ultra-liberal Esalen and on the Bill Moyers show. Why was this? Ellwood suggests it was because the audience thought he was liberal because they were liberal and they thought any intellectual writing about comparative mythology would also be liberal. To be fair to Campbell, he did change. Thanks to the feminist exploration of the existence of matriarchies, he became more sympathetic to the place of goddesses in myth. Campbell spoke of ancient Hebrew conquest of Canaan as an example of pastoral fighting and promoting war against feminist goddesses.

Conclusions: Similarities and Differences

Let’s begin with the similarities:

  • Attitudes to the modern world: anti-modern, anti-rationalism and anti-materialistic science, anti-liberal Enlightenment
  • Esoteric spirituality: Gnosticism seeking hidden wisdom in the remote past in order to save people from entrapment in the false hopes of worldly political fantasies
  • Interest in literary mythology over folklore: myth became a magic potion by which one could again drink of the rejuvenation power of humanity’s primal vision
  • Mythological influences: Herder, Schelling, and the folk psychology of Wilhelm Wundt, Georges Sorel, Ortega y Gasset, Spengler, Heidegger Frobenius and Thomas Mann
  • Attitude to communism: all three were anti-communist
  • Publisher and funding: Bollington, Paul Mellon
  • Fieldwork: Philological or textual work on myth? Bad science. Theories not falsifiable.
  • Decontextualized myth from local culture in time and place and eternalized mythic stories

Broadly speaking, those attracted to New Age ideas when they began in the late 1970s are either apolitical or overwhelmingly liberal. They are either FDR liberals, centrists, and even a few neo-liberals. Those who are apolitical are less likely to understand or care about the very conservative political views of Jung, Eliade and Campbell. Those who were liberal in the late 1970s were riding the wave of at least fifteen years when Yankeedom was liberal politically (1960-1975). They naively assumed that any therapists interested in cross-cultural psychology (Jung) would be liberal rather than conservative, and anyone interested in comparative religion (Eliade) or comparative mythology (Campbell) would also be liberal by default. The purpose of my article is to give background that provides proof they were dead wrong.

First published at Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post Aryan Right-Wing Mythology for the New Age: Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The Social Anatomy and Dynamics of Power: Bases, Depth, Scope, and Dimensions


Question about the where, when, what of power 

Is power something inside a person (an attribute) or a relationship between people? Is power a neutral concept, or does power have a positive or negative charge?  Is power vertical or horizontal? Most of the time it seems that power is hierarchical and can be called power over people. But can there be horizontal power, that is power with people? What is the relationship between power and politics? Is politics a specific form of power or is power a particular form of politics? What is the relationship between power, persuasion, and control? Are they interchangeable? Are they three completely different categories or are they related and overlapping?

What is the relationship between power and authority? Are power and authority opposites? Is power a form of authority or is authority a form of power?  Is all power intentional or can power be exerted unintentionally? What is the relationship between power, wealth, and prestige? Can you be powerful but not be wealthy and prestigious? Can you have wealth and prestige but not have power? What is the difference between potential power and latent power? What is the range of power in terms of the number of people it affects, the variety of tactics used or its depth of intensity?

Resources for this article

The field of political sociology has many very good theories of power. G. William Domhoff has written about how power is produced and distributed in two books about how the ruling class rules Yankeedom.  These books are The Powers That Be and Who Rules America? W. Lawrence Neuman has covered much ground in his textbook Power, State and Society. The Italian Gianfranco Poggi has identified three types of power in his book Forms of Power. Michael Mann has written three volumes on power that have demonstrated a deep historical grounding.  They are called The Sources of Social Power. Peter Morris has developed a theory of power from a philosophical standpoint. Stewart Clegg has written three books on power that I devoured. His work would require way more space than a single article. Robert Alfred and Roger Friedland have developed the richest theory of power from the point of view of six sociological schools. However, for purposes of just getting our feet wet, I will only draw from two books, one by Dennis Wrong, and the other by Steven Lukes.  Wrong’s book is titled Power: Its Forms, Bases and Uses. Lukes’ book is called Power: A Radical View.

This piece will focus on vertical power: when a person or class has power over people to harness energy and labor to get work done. How exactly do they do this?  My article is divided into three parts. The first is the delineation of eleven power bases. The second is a description of the three dimensions of power – pluralist, elitist, and class. I will close by answering the questions that I first posed in the orientation. At least as important, how does it get to be that people come to accept their own submission to power? This will be the subject of my next article.

I Range of power

We need to be able to access the range of power. What is the scope of power? In other words how far in breadth and depth does it cover? How long does it last?  Dennis Wrong identifies three areas of extensiveness, comprehensiveness, and intensiveness.

  • Extensiveness has to do with how many people are involved.
  • Comprehensiveness is the variety of strategies the powerholder can employ to achieve their outcome.
  • Intensity is the range of how far it can used before it loses control over people. This has to do with the degree of coordination (in the case of power with) and subordination (in the case of power over).

Let’s use some examples. In the case of the sadist and masochist, power relations are narrowly extensive but highly comprehensive and intensive power relations. While dictatorial-tyrannical power will wield extensive and intensive power, the difficulty of maintaining the visibility at all times of the behavior of subjects sets limits to the comprehensiveness of its power.

There are three reasons why greater extensiveness of a power relation sets limits on authoritarian comprehensiveness and intensity. The first is the greater the number of subordinates makes for greater difficulty supervising all of their activities. Secondly, the more people it subordinates the more differentiated the chain of command is necessary to control them. Thirdly, the more people are involved the greater the likelihood of wide variation of the population’s attitudes toward the power holder.

II Power bases

By what means does the dominator achieve and maintain power? Let’s begin with the typology of power bases provided offered by Dennis Wrong.  I’ve added a few of my own from some of the sources listed in the orientation section.

1) Force With force, an individual or political group achieves their objectives in the face of another group’s noncompliance by stripping them of the choice between compliance and noncompliance. Force is treating a human subject as if they were a physical object or a biological organism subject to pain or injury. There are two kinds of forces – physical force and psychic force.

  1. a) Physical force includes the use of violence, damaging the body. Its purpose is to eliminate people from the scene or prevent them from taking any action at all. Violent force can also involve the denial of food, sleep or on a larger scale, employment. Force can also be non-violent by those resisting to domination. In the case of civil disobedience, resisters use their bodies as physical objects.
  1. b) The use of psychic force involves the damages of ideas, emotions, such as verbally insulting, degrading, or the deformation of character. On a group level, this would be ritual degradation, engaging in sorcery or casting a spell. On a less severe scale, nagging and browbeating are instances of psychic violence.

2) Coercion This is a term that is mistakenly used interchangeably with force. Coercion is a threat of the use of force. For example, I am driving on a city street and I see a cop’s flashing lights go on, indicating for me to pull over. I pull over not because I respect the cop’s legitimate authority, but because he has a gun. A man involved with a woman having a domestic quarrel stands up and begins shouting and pointing. This is not force because there is no physical contact. However, there is clearly a threat of force.

Coercion can take the form of symbols such as “Beware of Dog” signs, or gestures such as shaking a fist, swaggering walks, or verbal statements such as “your money or your life”. It can take place as displays such as in military parades or the flourishing of nightsticks. Coercion can succeed without force, such as robbing a bank with a water pistol. In the short run this is the most effective form of power in terms of extensiveness, comprehensiveness, and intensity while requiring the least amount of communication. However, it is high in the cost of material and human resources.

3) Politics This is the control people exert over what, when, where, and how people can and can’t act. An example is parents controlling their kid’s behavior as long as the kid lives at home: “my house, my rules” say the parents. Nation-states control their populations with passports, laws, and statutes.

4) Economic power This kind of power involves control over material resources such as commodities, wages, salaries, tools, natural resources, money, and stocks. The power of a capitalist over a worker is a typical example.

5) Symbolic power As a college teacher I can control my students by the power I have over their grade. Symbolic power is control over certificates, grades, and diplomas.

6) Information control/persuasion This is control over communication, whether face-to-face or through media. This control can be over information content, information sources or how or when information is presented. Propaganda is hard-liner information control, while rhetoric (debate) or dialectic (classroom) are softer means of communication control.

Persuasion deals with changing attitudes (minds) and/or changing actions through the use of rhetoric. Face-to-face persuasion is more up-front rather than behind the scenes.  Persuasion presents itself as an implicitly egalitarian relationship that leaves intact free choice without resorting to either tacit or overt threat to a group. As with all the forms of power before information control, it is irrelevant who the individual is, what the situation is, and the time and place of its occurrence. With information control, persuasion involves far more sensitivity to time, place, and circumstance. Mass persuasion using mass or internet communication is much closer to propaganda.

7) Charisma This form of power is based on the personal qualities of an individual such as charm, theatrical skills, oratory power, being articulate, or having spiritual vision. When applied to cults, charisma is the most unstable form of power because when the leader dies or is revealed to be fallible, whatever has been built falls with him.

8) Sexual resources Here we have the exchange of sexual favors for money, power, or fame. Sexual resources also involve the promise of sex and the manipulation of the other person with the prospects of having sex. So much of dating relationships is all about this.

9) Manipulation Manipulation is one of those words which is over-used and meant to refer to everything from news manipulation, advertising manipulation, or relations between equals. I will define manipulation as exclusively what happens between friends. It involves getting an equal to do something through exposure, distraction, deception, exaggeration, or guilt. In his book Influence, John Cialdini named many of these forms of manipulation which he called exploitation of reciprocity, foot-in the-door, foot-in-the mouth, door-in-the-face, and low-balling.

10) Legitimation This form of power involves the power holder having formal training, degrees, official clothing, badges, and reputation. What makes this form of power so powerful is that those in subordination have internalized the right of a legitimate authority to rule. Legitimacy means authority sanctioned by social structures and respect is given by subordinates (at least initially.) Authors of books and some political figures are examples. Legitimacy is the untested acceptance of another’s judgment.

All forms of power up to legitimacy require that those holding vertical power expend energy. In one case it involves the use of weapons, jails, and concentration camps. In the other wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, as in doing marketing research or advertising campaigns. In the case of mass persuasion, it involves studying how to write a successful political speech. But all these forms of power require constant replenishing of resources.

Using legitimate power may require initial external input through training or schooling, but over the course of generations the authorities can go long stretches without input because the subservient have internalized their authority. The initial input of authority involves the production of ideology of obedience through mass media, education, and religious socialization which people internalize. Once subordinates have internalized this ideology, this form of power is more or less set. Legitimate power is in some ways the most interesting because here the dominated have come to believe that the dominator deserves to be in this position. The extensiveness of legitimate authority is more limited, but it is most reliable in controlling the anticipated reactions of power subjects. Legitimate authority is most efficient in minimizing the need for keeping watch.

Most workers report to their jobs every day because they need the wages (economic power). But their attitude towards their bosses is mostly that their bosses also have legitimate authority. Many have come to believe that their bosses deserve to monopolize tools, resources, and property. When workers are upset, most of the time they demand better working conditions, more pay, and more benefits. They don’t challenge capitalist authority over what gets produced, how much, or by when. This 500-year-old system appears to be eternal and only rarely in revolutionary situations can workers imagine any other way of organizing production.

11) Competency This last form of power involves getting others to do something because of the powerholders demonstrated skills or know-how. The best example of this in the relationship between a doctor and her patient, a lawyer and his client, or a pilot and her passengers.  On the one hand, all these forms of power are legitimate. But unlike most forms of power there are neither guns nor goods that are shown to command obedience. Unlike in persuasive forms of power, with competent authority no evidence is needed. A patient may listen to a doctor’s advice without understanding the rationale. Their authority is imputed, rather than demonstrated. In competent authority, comprehensiveness and intensity are low. Knowledge is not depleted with use, and costs have more to do with equipment. Its basis of knowledge is utilitarian.

An even better form of competency is a hunting leader of an egalitarian hunting and gathering society. Here the leader has no desire to lead but their leadership is insisted upon by the group because of their skills. A story is told by an anthropologist that the prospective leaders have to be dragged out of the bushes. Oftentimes the captain of a baseball team is chosen by the players, the first among equals because of their competency.

III Multiple power bases are used and morph into each other over time

Human motivation is almost always a heterogeneous mix of different, often conflicting impulses which play themselves out over time. Because of this, a stable power relation of some comprehensiveness and intensity is rarely based on a single form of power. Each form of power usually has more than one power base. For example, a college teacher will use symbolic power as primary force but will support it through politics and legitimacy. An employer will use economic power primarily but combine it with political power and information control.

In addition, power bases tend to change over time as relationships develop over time and routine sinks in. For example, in a cult the charismatic power of love for a leader can deteriorate into a simply authoritarian political bureaucratic power when the leader dies. Prison guards initially use force and coercion but over time some prisoners become attached to the guards (the Stockholm syndrome) and might even see the guards as having legitimate power. An occupation that is chosen initially for financial gain (economic power) but may be maintained out of pride of craft (competency) even when the person is making less money. It is in the long-term, self-interest for the powerholder to try to transform might into right, force, and coercion into legitimacy. On the other hand, the dependence of the subordinates’ position in the power relationship will motivate them to come part way to meet the powerholder.

IV Three dimensions of power: pluralist, elite and Marxist


In liberal theories of power, such as that of the political scientist Robert Dahl, the way power is measured is that different actors and different interest groups compete in different areas of interest. Power is purported to be diffused across situations and there is “nothing going on behind the scenes”. Power is neither unstructured nor systematic.  Power is identified with the issues that agenda has set, for example, at a city council meeting. Power is subject to constant dissipation because of the push and pull of different veto groups. The exercise of power is strictly behavioral and observed and the word power is used interchangeably with persuasion.

Contrary to either elitist or Marxist theory, all power does not involve conflict because people gain power through accidents, unintended consequences, or just stating the issue more clearly. At the same time, those successful in a conflict of interest may involve more of their capacity to do things or more consent from others. There may be no struggle at all.

For the pluralists, the wielding of power is decentralized most of the time into several separate and single issues. This is different from elite theories that argue that the issues are connected. The wielding of power is overt and can be seen, as in the action of the leaders at a city council meeting who are limited in deciding on concrete issues in front of everyone. The preferences in a local participation have to do with the uniqueness of particular individuals rather than underlying class interests. Jeremy Bentham argued that preferences are the same as interests and are revealed by market behavior. Everyone is the best judge of their own interest and people are not seen as having illusions about their interests or being short-sighted about them. Interests are more or less revealed by participating in politics. For pluralists, political parties adequately make room for the interests of everyone because class conflict is the exception, not the rule for pluralists. Pluralists have complete confidence that voters are consciously aware of them and can articulate them. For pluralists it is too cynical to propose that people’s interests can be unconscious or that they can be inarticulate and politicians may have to express their interests for them. On a larger scale, pluralists think representative democracy works pretty well. Workers know what they want, can articulate what they want, and their representatives listen to them and carry out their will.

Politically and sociologically pluralists are rooted in the work of Emile Durkheim who believed that the state in capitalist society could allow democratic participation. When the masses explode, revolt, or create revolutionary situations it is a sign of group pathology rather that that the system isn’t working. For pluralists 40-50% of those who don’t vote do so because their will is being carried out by politicians, with their consent. It is not because there was anything wrong with the system or the candidates. Both the parties and the state are socialized to balance group demands and public interest. The image of the state is as a thermostat or referee between competing groups.

Elitist theories of power

Pluralist theories of power are clearly liberal. Class theories of power are straightforwardly Marxian socialist. Elite theory is considerably more complicated. For example, the Italian political theorists of politics – Pareto, Mosca and Michels – are all conservative. They explain political power as a battle of elites and dismiss the masses as apathetic, ignorant, and superstitious. On the other hand, theorists in the centrist tradition of Max Weber are more interested in explaining power in terms of the autonomy of state bureaucracies. On the left, theorists of power like C. Wright Mills, William Domhoff, Bachrach and Baratz analyze the ruling class much more critically than the Italian theorists and they are more hopeful about the power of the lower classes to assert their power. For the most part, we will focus of the elite theory of Bachrach and Bartaz because they directly challenged pluralist Robert Dahl’s description of power.

Elitist theories of power think there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than pluralists do. For both elitists and Marxists, issues are not diffused across social life, and many issues are interconnected. For example, both elitist and Marxist theorists will say that capitalists allow disagreements to be aired publicly around cultural issues of sexuality and religion but the rulers keep economic issues of the viability of capitalism and the gap between the rich and the poor off the table. For elitists and Marxists, there is not a plurality of different issues and different interest groups. Behind the scenes, there are the same few actors and the same few interest groups that prevail across all issues.  The full thrust of power is not exhausted on the floors of city councils over real issues. For example, a city council will argue about where the next place will be that the homeless are dumped off. However, they will not discuss in public why real estate companies have the right to buy up as much property in a city as possible. For elitists, power is not diffused but stored and concentrated in the circulation of elite groups and is not lessened through the push and pull of competing groups.

For elitists, whether competing groups are more or less competent in what they are trying to do or more or less the subject of accident, all power involves conflicts of interests – whether they are overt or covert. Power and persuasion are not interchangeable. For elitists, all power involves force or fraud, as Machiavelli said. Power for elitists involves limiting the decision-making publicly, while political issues are consciously decided upon by individuals behind closed doors. For elitists, interests are far more important than preferences and they are not likely to be revealed publicly, most especially conflicts of interest in politics or economics. Interests are most deeply human, deep, and dark and are far more important than people’s preferences which are guided by conscious motivation. Elite theories allow that people can be mistaken about their interests and often conflicted about their preferences. For elitists, people who don’t vote do not do so because they assent to the available choices. It is because they are apathetic, ignorant and can’t think beyond their own self-interest.

For elite theorists, the state is more concerned with ruling than with governing, and in managing its bureaucracy (in the case of Weber) rather than ensuring the voices of its citizens are heard. While for pluralists’ society is the state, for elitists the state has independence from society and protects its own interests. For elitists, power is not situational, rising and declining. Power is structural and independent of situations, serving its own interest. Power is stored and concentrated in deep state institutions which stay in place as local regimes move in and out. Power is about politics, force, and the threat of force. The population doesn’t steer its own course but is manipulated. Exploitations come from the bottom of the class structure. Because the population is not seen as capable of self-organization, disturbances are short-lived because the lower classes cannot keep their attention focused. Unlike pluralists, those in power do not govern with consent but rule through competition between elites. For elite theorists, the state both manages the interests of the middle and upper classes, but also has an interest of its own.

Marxist theories of power

For Weberian elitists, power rests in the internal bureaucracy of the state, rather than social classes or interest groups. For Marxists, power is wielded by the capitalist class which controls the state and society and exploits the lower classes. Marxist theory is also cultural and psychological in how it distracts the working-class from defending its own interest.

For the capitalists, power would never be shown either at the city level or even at a state level. Capitalists wield power at the national level in the control of both political parties. Marxists argue that while the capitalist class may have differences in foreign policy, within the domestic sphere capitalists agree to keep any third political party from forming and suppress any workers’ movements for higher wages and better working conditions. Both political parties are anti-communist.

How are disruptions of the lower order treated? This depends about whether capitalism is expanding or contracting. If capitalism is developing in prosperous times, capitalists will attempt to entertain, distract, and present reified images of life to get lost in. Here workers will have false consciousness. If the productive forces are contracting capitalists may be more repressive, neglecting infrastructure and begin militarizing the police. Elitists will claim conflicts exist between themselves which eventually subside. For Marxists conflicts are endemic because there are terminal crises in capital which do not subside but spread to other social sectors. For Marxists, unlike liberal elitists, the state cannot manage conflict in the long run because the conflict between the capitalists and workers is much broader and deeper than anything the state can manage. When it comes to local expression of power at the city level the pluralist will fight over the plays of the game, elitists will fight over the rules of the game, while Marxists will challenge the game itself.

Unlike elitists, Marxists don’t think all conflict involves force. Conflict can express itself through smoldering class conflicts which may not require the use of force. In the areas of decision making, the bias of the system can be manifest without any meeting of capitalist minds. For example, many years ago I was on an economic justice committee at a Unitarian Church and we decided to do a campaign to “buy nothing” on Black Friday. We wanted to place an ad in a city newspaper. The first newspaper refused our ad. We went to another one and the same thing happened. When we were turned down for the third time, one member on our committee claimed the newspapers were conspiring against us. Someone else pointed out that there didn’t need to be a conspiracy. Each newspaper separately would be threatened by advertisers with withdrawing their ads if our ad ran. Since advertisers knew what the competing ads were before the paper was published, we could understand that we would be rejected by all capitalist newspapers without any of the copy editors contacting each other at all.

In terms of interests and preferences. Marxists’ theories suggest that working class people are not conscious of their interests (false consciousness) and their interests are shaped by advertisers behind their backs. Marxists must point out to workers what their real interests are because workers have illusions about their interests, such as the prospects of becoming millionaires.

For pluralists, power is exercised through what is resolved on each agenda item. For elites, power is controlled over the decision-making process, of which items are not even on the agenda. For Marxists, power is exercised in convincing the population to take sides which go against their class interests. For example, recognizing that the funding for the police serves their interest more than low-cost housing. Workers are blinded by false consciousness which comes out of TV shows in which cops are brave and heroic individuals. They fail to understand that the police are a domestic state-terrorist organization mobilized to beat up and kill the working class. For Marxists, what it means to have power is to keep people from even articulating grievances which will threaten the economic interest of capitalism. Capitalists, through sports, movies, and nationalism shape workers’ very cognitions and perceptions so that they express their interests in superficial topics that have nothing to do with their own lives. Like elitists, Marxists think that non-socialist political parties cannot seriously improve life for the working class and that political participation in these parties is a waste of time. Capitalists control workers not primarily through force and coercion but through hegemony, in which the workers consent to be ruled through reactance theory. Reactance theory convinces workers that they are freely choosing. Marxists treat social explosions not as signs of pathology as pluralists do. Rather, they are treated as workers breaking through false consciousness and recognize their real interests lie in overthrowing capitalists.  Please see the table at the end of the article for a summary of these and other contrasting points. 

V The what, when, where, and how of power

Now that we have gone through the eleven power bases and the three dimensions of power, we are in a better position to answer the questions initially posed at the beginning of this article.

Is power individual or social?

On the surface, it appears that when it comes to power, one group has it and the other group doesn’t. But this is a mechanical way of thinking about how power is held. Powerholders can be weak and subordinates can be strong. More importantly, in most power situations those who are subordinate are many and those with power are few. This means we must explain how it is that those in a subordinate position allow those with power to rule. When most people are passive, we have to say that those people have some degree of complicity in allowing the small group in power to have their way. This is why power is a social relationship rather than an individual one. Pluralists and Marxists will agree that power is social. Elitists are more likely to think of power as mechanical with elites active and the masses passive. How subordinates allow those with power to rule will be the subject of my next article.

Is power neutral or is it negative or positive?

It is best to think of the word power in a neutral or even positive way rather than as strictly negative or a relationship that could somehow be avoided. After all, power is a collective and necessary process. Power is neutral in the sense that it is a collective exerted action to harness energy to do work in order to: a) mine resources (economic and sexual); b) confer prestige (status); c) coordinate action; and d) plan future collective action. Pluralists are uncomfortable admitting power exists and see it as negative. Elitists will see power as negative but inevitable. Marxists are more likely to see power as negative and positive and hold out that in communist society power will be used positively.

Is power over people or with people?

Most people use the term power to mean power over people. What this leaves out is the possibility that people can organize social relations without hierarchies, as the anarchists have pointed out. In this article the power bases and the dimensions of power have been used to have power over people. However, the power base of competency can be used to promote horizontal power relations. To be clear I will define two kinds of power:

  1. Horizontal power—harnessing energy to do work in a way in which all groups control all dimensions of society – technology, economics, politics, and culture. This is most prevalent in egalitarian tribal societies and in some kinds of relationships in industrial capitalist countries. Examples are relations among friends or comrades or collaboration at work between people on the same level. This is power with
  2. Vertical power – harnessing energy to do work in a way where one group monopolizes most or all dimensions of society. Vertical power goes with power over

The pluralists of one-dimensional power will think that power is over people and will try to substitute persuasion in their ideal city hall political engagements. For them, the political is situational. Elitists say there is only one kind of power and that is vertical, power over people. Three-dimensional class theorists see power as potentially power with people as part of the emergence of classless societies.

Is politics a specific form of power or is power a particular form of politics

Power and politics are very closely related but they are not interchangeable. As we have seen earlier in this article, politics is one of eleven power bases. Power is the end and politics is the means. Power is collective, exerted action to achieve outcomes. Politics is a means to control what, when, where, and how people move or don’t move throughout time and space. But other forms of power are necessary in order for politics to be successful. This includes force, coercion, legitimacy, and economic incentives. One-dimensional theories of power, being liberal politically, think power is a form of politics and are less willing to consider that power is pervasive so as to include all the other power bases. Two and three-dimensional theories of power claim politics is a means to power.

What is the relationship between power, persuasion, and control?

As we have seen in the section on power bases, persuasion is a particular form of power, and though its methods are less intense than other power bases, all persuasion involves power. However, not all power uses persuasion. Power can use force, coercion, and sexuality in which no appeal to reason is operating. Control is a particular form of power, specifically political. But as I said earlier, politics requires other power bases for it to be successful. Only pluralists hold out for the prospect that persuasion alone can win people over.

What is the relationship between power and authority? Are power and authority opposites? Is power a form of authority or is authority a form of power?

Again, power is the more general category. Authority usually involves the power base of legitimation. However, authority by itself is not enough. As a college teacher, my students might see me as legitimate, yet without the threat of the symbolic power of a grade, I cannot be assured they will listen to me. In addition, power can be asserted without authority. Ten other power bases can be operating in which the power holder will not have authority yet will be successful. Since pluralists tend to be more optimistic about social relations, they are more likely to think the public will listen to legitimate authorities than elitists or Marxists.

Is power intentional or can it be unintentional?

All power is intentional, but there is a difference between acting in order to achieve a certain outcome and achieving it and recognizing that other effects will unavoidably result. However, so long as the effects were foreseen by the actor, even if not aimed at as such, they still seem to count in the theories of Wrong and Lukes as constituting an exercise of power. This is in contrast to unanticipated and unintended effects which are instances where the situation is no longer under the command of those with power.

Some may object and say that intentional efforts to influence others often produce unintended as well as intended results. Unintended results of power should still be the responsibility of the person or group utilizing power. After all a dominating and overprotective mother does not intend to feminize the character of her son, yet this is what often happens. Isn’t she still responsible, regardless of her intentions? The effects others have on us, unintended by and even unknown to them, may influence us more profoundly than direct efforts.

To insist that power can be validly imputed to an actor only when she produces intended and foreseen effects on others does not consider that she may so also produce a wide range of far more significant unintended and unforeseen effects. Effects that are foreseen but not intended count as exercises of power. Those events which are unanticipated and unforeseen are not the responsibility of the power subject. To claim full responsibility for all effects, intended, anticipated and foreseen, unanticipated and unforeseen is to attribute a divine, all-knowing power to the powerholder and make the concept of power strident and unrealistic. Pluralists are most likely to attribute to powerholders good intentions and the negative consequences of their power to accidents or misunderstandings.

Power wealth and privilege

Having power is deeper than having wealth and prestige. Power uses wealth and prestige to maintain itself and achieve its ends. Wealth is a form of economic resources and privilege will usually go with legitimacy or sexual resources. But power can certainly be successful without them, by using some combination of the other power bases.

Potential vs latent power

Potential power and latent power are also very close, but valuable distinctions can be made. Potential power may or may not be used. When it is not used it has no impact on the anticipated reactions of others. An example is a wealthy miser who chooses to conceal his fortune. Another is someone who has a secret arsenal in his cupboard but does not use it. Latent power has anticipated reactions built in which it may have on others without the power holder having issued a command. Both elite and class theories are more likely to be sensitive to these subtleties.

• First published at Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post The Social Anatomy and Dynamics of Power: Bases, Depth, Scope, and Dimensions first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Polytheism vs Monotheism: Building Bridges Between Polytheism and Atheism

Atheists bet on the wrong theistic horse

When atheists challenge religion, they pick on monotheism. Their explanations of what supernatural monotheism is really about are as follows:

  • It uses pre-scientific explanatory strategies.
  • What it describes are really seasonal phenomena.
  • The characters are prehistorical political figures.
  • It uses vague and muddled language.
  • Its sacred beings are neurotic projections.
  • Religious ideas are bugs in the human neurological programming.

However, the idea that there must be some single reality, underlying the wild diversity of gods hasn’t been challenged by atheists.  Why don’t atheists pick on polytheists as well? Most likely, they were raised in monotheism and know its weaknesses well. Since polytheists are in the vast minority in the United States, their traditions were not closely studied. In addition, atheists are likely to have bought the monotheistic propaganda against polytheists: its cosmology is chaotic; its practice is preoccupied with sex and pleasure; its reasoning is short on abstract thinking; and its gods are a reification of images. Further, monotheists complain that polytheistic gods are not ambitious enough: they are not there all the time and not in space all the time. This article not only challenges these ideas about polytheism, but following John Michael Greer in his book A World Full of Gods, I explain why polytheists are much better opponents for atheists than monotheists. Greer states that atheist arguments are against Christians and Jews and have little relevance when used against paganism. Perhaps the diversity of human sacred experience is an accurate response to the diversity of divine reality.

What makes polytheism broader than either monotheism or atheism

What makes polytheists different from both monotheists and atheists is that it applies the same critical tools it uses against atheism and monotheism to itself. Monotheists say that polytheists and atheists are mistaken and have all kinds of problems, but those same problems are not applied to their own beliefs. So too, atheists criticize monotheists, but they don’t apply their same reasoning to atheism. Polytheists show the limitations of monotheism and atheism, but they apply the same criteria to their own thinking, so they accept the plurality of beliefs. In other words, polytheists admit that monotheism, atheism, and polytheism all have problems, but the fact that all three exist says something about the reality of diversity. What both monotheism and atheist have in common is there is one single truth, and they argue over which has it. Polytheists don’t do this.

Monotheism as the imperialism of religion

Many people use the word “theism” as though it inevitably implies monotheism. But monotheism is not the only theism in town. Greer points out that works on philosophy of religion are still written as though the choices are atheism on the one hand and some variant of classical monotheism on the other. The idea that there must be some single reality underlying the wild diversity of gods has rarely been challenged. Whatever “the sacred” might be, to Eliade, in his studies of the history of religion, there’s only one version of the sacred, and all the mystics and saints had to be experiencing the same things. The religio-political task is to deny, demonize, or at least subordinate luxuriant polytheistic growth. If all polytheistic systems are by definition false, illusions, demons, or guises behind which monotheism waits to be found, the competing field of deities is cleared for monotheists to be the only theism in town to battle atheism.

Polytheism afoot

A substantial number of people from wholly orthodox Christian and Jewish backgrounds have broken decisively with the god of classical monotheism. The history of modern pagan revival is intricate and only just has begun to receive the attention of serious scholars. Its origins reach back to the late 18th century. Wicca remains the largest of the modern pagan movements. As of 2005 a mid-range estimate suggests there are between one and two million followers of modern pagan religions in America. For the history see Margret Adler, Drawing Down the Moon and Cynthia Eller, Living in the Lap of the Goddess.

Exoteric vs Esoteric theism

The more fundamentalist monotheists deny the reality of different sacred experiences and deny the existence that other gods exist but theirs. But the more liberal, upper middle-class traditions of monotheism are perennials. They say there is exoteric religion which is filled with superstition and what the masses believe. These are usually the same working-class folks who atheists pick on. However, any religion also has an esoteric wing is the core of any religion. It is not superstitious – God does not throw down thunderbolts or call people sinners. All the world religions have the same core which only the few understand. All esoteric perennialists say all sacred experience are the same, but they have different cultural meanings. Most polytheists make no such division and place ordinary religion at the center.

Polytheists also have a similar exoteric-esoteric division. Wicca is generally open to men and women without any formal training. But there are magical traditions in the West which require special study and a grading system in which mysteries are revealed. However, esoteric polytheists do not say that all people who make the grade have the same underlying experience. For example, the mystical path up the center of the tree of life is different from the magical paths to its right or left. Polytheists claim that the difference between an Anglican mystical experience, an Islamic mystical experience of Sufi dancing, and the vision of a buffalo spirit on a Native American vision quest are all different experiences because they have contacted three different spiritual beings. There can be more than one Sacred experience.

Lesser sacred presences

For polytheists there are levels of sacred beings to serve: the gods of nature who provide sustenance; the gods of the community who provide peace and atmosphere for civilized life; the spirits who provide more narrowly defined blessings; the ancestors who provide family and heritage; the genius who provides personal guidance and protection. Another example is the prevalence of ancestor worship in contemporary Japan. In Greece, each nymph was believed to be active in a relatively small area, and to have power only over  limited aspects of the natural and human worlds.  Nymphs were believed to have power surpassing human beings, but nothing even remotely like omnipotence or omniscience was ever attributed to them.

Like nymphs, ancestors cannot usefully be described in any of the terms used to define the god of classical monotheism.  It is not always easy to tell who should be counted as gods and who should not. The boundaries separating gods from ancestors and spirits is sometime very hard to draw. Many cultures make offerings to beings who are not considered to be gods. Pagans revere the presence of nature spirits, land-wights and nymphs, as well as gods and goddesses. What becomes of them? Are they swallowed up in a monothetic night in which all cows are black? Monotheism runs roughshod over competing sacred identities – earth-spirits, ancestor spirits, totems, and nymphs.

Polytheists have respect and reverence for their gods, not worship

For a classical monotheist, the divinity is infinite, humanity is finite, and the only possible relation between them is the absolute submission of the worshipper to the God. God is transcendental, a “holy other”. The core of monotheist sacrifice is appeasement and renunciation. But from what we’ve seen in the last section, there are lesser sacred presences who require attention, offerings, and persuasion, not worship.

In the lives of polytheists there is diversity of levels within a religion as well as cross-cultural differences between religions. This might indicate that the corresponding diversity of divine reality is because of a variety of sacred presences who actually exist. “Wholly other” has no place in traditional polytheism. No god is wholly other. In paganism Greer says a particular culture is given “citizen rights” in the presence of deities. Pagan gods and goddesses are superior in their might and majesty, but they live in a common world. What the gods ask of humanity is not abject submission but reverence or respect. Both exist in a common world defined by mutual relationships. The central concept of polytheist practice is reciprocity, a matter of exchange. The relationship is never one-sided. Some pagans argue that becoming involved in the ecology movement is the ultimate pagan practice. We support nature so that nature continues to support us.

Generosity is thus a central divine characteristic, but it is not limited to the gods. Greer says the pagan habit of competing in tests of strength and skill has its origin as acts of reverence to gods and ancestors. The gods are supremely powerful and skillful and to demonstrate skill in their presence is to do the honor by imitating them. Funeral games celebrated the vitality and strength of ancestral spirits.

Monotheists are too ambitious

Arguments about monotheistic theism require the highest standards of its god. They must be omnipotent, omniscience and omnibenevolent. To claim that a god is omnipotent means that not only is he merely very powerful, but that god is more powerful than anything else in the universe. Greer says that since no human being can independently vouch for the strength of every other entity, the claim can’t be justified by any possible experience. Characteristics such as omnipotence, which define a being’s relation to the rest of the universe, are harder to verify than characteristics that define the beings’ existence or nature. Monotheist worship is a one-way relationship between an otherworldly god and a submissive population. Humanity depends on God, but God does not depend on humanity. This god is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipotent. These qualities cause great problems for monotheists in their debates with atheists.

In polytheism, the gods are powerful but not omnipotent, smart but not omniscient. They are associated with specific virtues but not omnibenevolent. The gods are superhuman, but they are not without limits; They are not supernatural, but exist within a natural order, both shaping its manifestations and bound by some of its laws. Finitism means the gods do not operate within significant limits and have particular areas of concern or rulership. Therefore, they are respected or revered but not worshiped. In fact, Greer points out that the weirder entities of current physics – superstrings, bubble universes, folded dimensions – transcend ordinary matter and energy far more drastically than the average pagan god. Polytheism provides a better rebuttal to atheists because the powers of its sacred presences are less demanding. These gods are not isolated from one another or from the ordinary world. They engage in both conflict and cooperation. Engagement for them is a participatory celebration, not appeasement or renunciation. Pagans start with the world of ordinary humans. The interaction between humans, gods and goddesses does not result in a smooth, singular process. The interactions are messy, unresolved, with some degree of harmony and some degree of continuing conflicts.

Furthermore, the monotheistic teleological argument of design does not just have to battle atheists. It does nothing to exclude polytheism. As. Hume says, there could just as well have been more than one intelligent designer of the cosmos and that the designs clash with each other. This would be unacceptable to monotheists because their deity must be orderly and reassuring.  They are running for shelter and security, not for a clash and uncertainty. There is enough of that on earth.

Atheist arguments against biblical claims and the origin of evil do not impact polytheism

The vast majority of atheist philosophers have aimed at Christian and Jewish ideas from the Bible. These include the origins of the earth, the scope of natural disasters and the existence of life after death. They may also argue that monotheists are wishful thinkers and superstitious. They cannot reason quantitatively (statistically), and they have selective perception. Atheists make efforts to make the Bible internally incoherent and show how it is contradicted by modern science. They are right. For monotheists, their God is the origin of everything, and this carries a heavy burden – as we have seen.

Against monotheism, Greer says, the argument about evil is the most effective weapon in the arsenal of atheism.  If God is all good and all powerful, how do we explain all the horrendous, pointless suffering? If there exists a God who is omnipotent and omniscient and all-loving, such a God would have both the power and the knowledge necessary to prevent all extreme or unnecessary suffering. An omniscient, omnipotent an omni-benevolent God who created the universe would have known in advance what evils would follow. Greer says this problem is so deep for monotheists that its defenders have created an entire branch of theology called “theodicy” to explain why the universe is not as unfair as it looks. There are three broad types of theodicies that have played a major role in western philosophy of religion:

  1. Augustine says that suffering is caused by the misuse of free will by created beings, not by divine intervention.
  2. In 130-122 CE Irenaeus says God has to permit evil because the experience of suffering is the only way for the human species to develop spiritually and morally. The world is a place for soul making. The problem with this defense is that it conflicts with the claim of divine omnipotence. An omnipotent God could just as well have created humanity in such a way that people could achieve spiritual and moral maturity without going through the experience of horrendous suffering.
  3. God permits and causes evil things to happen to demonstrate his power over the Egyptians. Isn’t that a sign of insecurity that would hardly be present in a God who is all knowing, powerful and loving?

Polytheists have no book that claims divine inspiration

Most of this has no relevance to polytheists. Pagans have no holy book that they claim is divinely inspired. From the standpoint of traditional polytheism, gods are not the origin of everything and because of that the work of the gods is less demanding. Polytheistic gods are not seen as the grounds of being. The gods are neither infinite, timeless, spaceless, nor changeless. They have superhuman capacities of power and knowledge, but these powers are limited. This can be seen in Taoism where the Tao is prior to the one, the Yang and the Yin and the elements.

Polytheistic Myths as literary rather than revealed religion

The well-organized pantheons found in classical mythology and German sagas are literary rather than theological creations. Greer points out that the heroic struggles of Achilles and Siegfried gain much of their dramatic power from the literary device that places them at the meeting point of two clearly defined communities. The symbols, rites and myths of polytheism can most usefully be seen as the result of extended processes of interaction between gods, rather than through a revealed religion.

The argument from evil doesn’t work with polytheism

If the gods in question were not all powerful and all knowing, evil and suffering can be readily explained by limitations in the gods’ power and knowledge. If the god is not omni-benevolent, evil and suffering can be explained by the fact that the god may have no motive to eliminate them. If more than one god exists and conflicts between the gods is possible, then the argument from evil loses nearly all of its force, since the benevolent actions of one god could be countered by the opposite action of another. Traditional polytheism provides no effective targets for the argument from evil coming from atheists. Polytheism is a more straightforward explanation for the world we actually experience than classical monotheism.

Epistemology: Strong vs weak miracles

When monotheists make their case of the truth of their religion, they site as sources of evidence scriptures which they claim are divinely inspired – wonderous events, miracles, and the works of holy people within their experience. Monotheists will dogmatically deny the reality of polytheists or atheists whom they will claim are ignorant. Monotheists may claim polytheists might be delusional, hallucinating, misperceiving, or unfocused.

Strong miracles are events which have a religiously meaningful context and appear to violate the familiar patterns of nature. For example, the earth’s rotation stopping for several hours. Miracles in a weak sense are extraordinary coincidences which occur in a religiously meaningful context but follow natural pattens like a successful rain dance. Hume rejected the possibility of strong miracles, claiming that it’s always more likely that the witnesses to miracles were either mistaken or dishonest.  Greer points out that churches that defend strong miracles don’t seem to be able to produce them at all in these days, or anytime recent enough to allow for reliable investigation. Atheists have usually focused discussions of miracles on the strong type, and often as not leave the weak type of miracle entirely out of the reckoning. Polytheists don’t believe in strong miracles, but they are moved by natural patterns which overlap with a meaningful sacred context. Therefore, they are hardly subject to atheist criticism.

Religious ineffability

A very common term for this quality of religious experience is ineffability – that is, beyond words to describe. But this usually refers to verbal language. There are at least some unusual experiences that may not lend themselves to verbal description, but they can be described mathematically. For example, the realm of quantum physics might be ineffable in terms of the English language, but it can be discussed very clearly in the language of mathematics. Because most monotheists are not professional scientists, they would have no way of knowing this.

Monotheist and polytheist ethics

Christianity and Judaism are profoundly conflicted by the human capacity for pleasure. The gratification of the senses is carefully weighed, if not forbidden entirely. For monotheists, a lack of Judeo-Christian faith leads straight to immorality, and “pagan” orgies. Monotheistic rhetoric for well over 2,000 years has treated pagan religion as though it were inseparable from sex. But the sexual behavior of Christian fundamentalist pastors over the past 50 years can be seen as a projection of their own unresolved sexual problems. On the other hand, pagan art uses the unclad human body to symbolize its superabundant beauty. Pagan thought sees erotic desire and delight as expressions of divine power.

The moral teachings of western monotheisms commonly define morality in terms of what it excludes. Monotheistic traditions see morality as telling people what to do. The purpose of sacred engagement for monotheism is appeasement of God or renunciation of sin. For polytheism the purpose of sacred engagement is participation with the spirits in recreating the world.

Pagan morality is a quest for wholeness and balance, not what it excludes. For pagans there are at least four levels of morality:

  1. Intention of the self;
  2. The values of the community;
  3. The processes of nature; and,
  4. Purposes of the gods

In contrast to being externally driven, moral thought in most traditional polytheist faith is inner directed, a process of a person mulling over options between the four levels above and making the best available choice.

The gods of paganism may do many things, but they don’t preach. In order to work these problems out, literature of ancient pagan cultures include a legacy of ethical writings ranging from the Norse Hávamál; the Irish Audacht Morainn, as well as the works of the great moralists of Greek and Roman pagan traditions. Lastly, the moral principles upheld by different gods would not be absolute. The moral argument can be used to least as effectively to support a belief in many gods as it would be to defend a belief in only one.

Monotheist rejection of myth for history

When the Hebrews signed on to the covenant with Yahweh, they were told that there would be no more mincing around with the plants and animals. They had a separate destiny. Their destiny was not in nature but in history. Mythic storytelling was dismissed as part of pagan superstition. Humanity’s job was to make human history according to God’s will. But the tendency to make myths wasn’t so easy to dispense with. Jews and Christians continued to live under myths but they did so behind their own backs. They continued to build up new myths as they were joined by European philosophers, scientists, and capitalists, as we shall see.

Monotheist Myth of Progress is a myth to be overcome

The name of this new myth, the myth that has gripped the imagination of Europe and Yankeedom over the last 300 years, is “progress”. Unlike people in societies that accepted myths, the Jews, Christians and the European intelligencia would see mythic narratives as nothing but illusions. but prosaics imagine themselves free from the myth and creatures of prosaic facts. However, the idea of superceding myth for history was part of another myth, the myth of progress. According to Greer, (162) progress came from two events, staggering, but temporary:

  • European people discovered three continents previously unknown to them – North America, South America, and Australia. These continents were subjected to ruthless economic exploitation.
  • Deposits of coal and oil buried within the earth in the prehistoric past were also discovered and exploited.

Greer calls the result the “Age of Exuberance” – a boom that lasted 300 years.  Today all the factors that gave rise to this age of exuberance are waning or gone. If you are one of those people who deny this, you will feel the power as a living myth in your very denial of it. In fact, the extent to which myth is conscious in the minds of the West’s allegorical interpretations of myths are offered. The problem with allegories is they tend to assume that it’s the human dimension that is primary, not the whole natural world.

Polytheist myths do not suffer from such limitations. These myths are wiser and much closer to the cycles of history. First, there is triumphant success, then overweening pride and folly, followed by a humiliating defeat. These myths are very common to human social and individual lives. If we use them, we face the world with a wider range of interpretation patterns than those raised only on the myth of progress.

In the pagan hermeneutics of myth, according to Greer, it could be said that ecology provides the scientific, experimental, and quantitative dimension of pagan myth. Pagan myth can be said to provide the narrative, spiritual and humanistic dimension of ecology

Time and eschatology

For monotheists, the evidence supporting eschatological prophesy consists of visionary experience guided by accepted authority such as seers and prophets and followed by passages of sacred writings. For monotheist perennialists, attempts to reconcile different prophesies with a lowest common denominator leaves it with super-thin universals.

The apocalyptic claims of monotheists presuppose that one God is able to cause spectacular violations of natural law. For example, the authors of Genesis mistakenly turned a local event in West Asia and Europe into a global catastrophe (the Flood).

For polytheists, matters are quite different. Greer says in Greece:

The word “eschatology” means last or furthest. In Greece the “eschattai” were areas near the borders of each city-state, regions of mountain, forest, seacoast where culture gave way to nature and Pan, the goat god of herding folk and hunters and was a much closer presence than the gods of Olympus (178).

In the pagan myth of Ragnarök is the Old Norse twilight of the gods. Ragnarök is not the end of everything. In Irish texts like Lebor Gabala, the book of invasions traces the world through a succession of ages, each ruled by its own gods, which came to power at one age, then are replaced by new gods in the next. Remove Ragnarök from Old Norse mythology and it looses some of its best literature and it takes away hope in adversity.

Likewise in Greece, Hesiod tells us of 3 generations of gods:

  1. Primal gods ruled by Ouranos
  2. Titan gods ruled by Kronos
  3. Olympian gods ruled by Zeus

Monotheists have unrealistic miracles combined with apocalyptic endings at the end of time. Polytheists claim, following Stephen Jay Gould, that besides gradual change, there is punctuated equilibrium where there are qualitative leaps which explain disasters. For polytheists there is no beginning or end to nature. After a disaster there is a new cycle in which there is a new configuration of gods and goddesses.


To review, monotheism is a religion which consists at the extreme ends of fundamentalism on the conservative side and perennialism on the liberal side. Since few are perennialists outside of intellectual circles, I will concentrate on the more popular form of monotheism. Monotheists are people who are less likely to take personal and social responsibility for the world we actually live in. Instead, they project an infantile picture of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God who lives in a far-away place but who benevolently will take care of everything. Nevertheless, this God barks out orders and demands worship and obedience. In reaction, humans offer appeasement and renunciation of the senses. Nature is not a closed, self-regulating system, but a means to an end: to know God in a transcendental world in the hereafter, in exchange for being taken care of in this one.

In his extreme claims about his God the monotheist gets trapped by atheists who point out contradictions based on known science.  This includes the existence of evil, an afterlife, strong miracles, and apocalyptic endings. Further, insistence on a single God who rules everywhere for all time is a kind of religious imperialism, which runs roughshod over the variety of religions and the varieties of religious experience that actually exist in this world.

Polytheism also consists of various types. “Hard polytheists” are those who believe in the ontological existence of goddesses and gods. Then there are soft polytheists who believe the deities are socio-historicalstructures which are the product of human societies. Lastly, there are Jungians who believe the gods and goddesses are psychological inventions of human beings, a collective unconscious which, when put to use, will create a more structured, hopeful life.

Because polytheistic gods are limited, they are far less subject to atheistic criticisms. Under polytheism there is room for chance in nature, society, and individual life. But there is also room for necessity since the gods have some limited power over their domain. The gods are immanent in nature and allow for responsible human intervention into ecological challenges through collective creativity and reciprocity. Furthermore, polytheists are not missionaries out to convert the world. Polytheists are happy with cross-cultural variation

Humans creatively participate with the gods and goddesses in ongoing earthly evolution with no need for promises of an afterlife because life on earth is erotic and pleasurable, rather than a reform school. There is no far-fetched expectation to believe in a God who created the world out of nothing. Instead, nature has always been here, infinite and eternal. Rather than obedience to God, polytheists claim to “do as thou wilt”, provided it harms no one. There are no apocalypses in polytheism. There are disasters within cycles, but because nature is infinitely creative, nature recovers from local disasters and keeps on spinning.

It is true that hard polytheism is on a collision course with atheism because atheists do not believe in the existence of God. But we must remember that the two kinds of soft polytheists can accommodate atheism because the gods are products of socio-history or psychology. But even hard polytheism is mostly accommodating to scientific atheism if we examine polytheist answers to the categories in the table.

• First published at Socialist Planning After Capitalism

The post Polytheism vs Monotheism: Building Bridges Between Polytheism and Atheism first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Tectonic Shifts in the World Economy: A World Systems Perspective


One of the main problems with Western media (other than their non-stop anti-Russian propaganda), is the narrow and parochial manner in which they conceive world events. Like realists and liberals of international relations theory, they analyze world events two countries at a time, for example, the U.S. vs Russia. They appear to have little conception of interdependence, like Russia, China, and Iran as a single block. Or the U.S., England, and Israel as another block. No state can make any moves without considering the causes and consequences of their actions for their interdependent states. Secondly, these talking heads fail miserably in understanding that conflicts between states are inseparable from the evolution of global capitalism which, in many respects, is stronger than any state. Thirdly, their “analysis” fails to consider that the world capitalist system has evolved over the last 500 years, as I will soon present. We will see that what is going on in Ukraine is part of a much larger tectonic struggle between Eastern China, Russia, and Iran to create a multipolar world while being desperately opposed by a declining West, headed by the United States and its minions.

A Brief History of Modern Capitalism

According to world systems theory, the global capitalist system has gone through four phases. In each phase, there was a dominant hegemon. First, there was the merchant capital of Italy that lasted from 1450-1640. This was followed by the great Dutch seafaring age from 1610-1740. Next, there was the British industrial system from 1776 to World War I. Lastly, the Yankee system which lasted from 1870 to 1970. Note that over these 500 years the pace of change quickened. In the Italian phase, the city states of Venice and Genoa rose and fell over 220 years. By the time we get to the United States, the time of rise and decline is 100 years. All this has been laid out by Giovanni Arrighi in The Long 20th century. In Adam Smith in Beijing, Arrighi also lays out the reasons he is convinced that China will be the leading hegemon in the next phase of capitalism.

Five Types of Capitalism   

Historically there have been five types of capitalism. The first is merchant capital in which profits are made by trade, selling cheap and buying dear. This is what Venice and Genoa did, as did Dutch seafarers on a grander scale. Next, is agricultural capitalism, including the slave system of the United States, Britain, and parts of the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. Then, the British invented the industrial capitalism system in which profit was made by investing the infrastructure of society: railroads, factories, and surplus labor from the wage labor system. Lastly, especially in the 20th century, we have two other forms of capitalism. In addition to being an industrial power after World War II, the United States used its industrial power to invest in the military arms industry and relied on finance capital (stocks and bonds).

Destructive Forms of Capitalism

In the later stage of all four systems, making money from commodities or technologies becomes problematic because it becomes unpredictable what people will buy. For example, after the Depression from 1929-1941, the United States got out of the depression by investing in the military. This was so successful that after World War II, capitalists began investing in the military even during peacetime (Melman, After Capitalism). It provided a much more predictable profit as long as countries continued to go to war. This encourages arming your own country or supplying the whole world, which is what the United States does today. There is also finance capital, where banks invest in stocks, bonds and financial instruments rather than infrastructure (as industrial capitalists did). For the past 50 years military and finance capital are primarily where the ruling class in Yankeedom has made its profits.

In the early phases of capitalism, in all four cycles, commodities were produced which required money as mediation, but the purpose was to produce more commodities and technologies. In the decaying part of the cycle, capitalists would rather invest in finance capital than industrial capital because of the quick turn-around in profits. Investing in building bridges, repairing roads, or building schools will surely benefit capitalists in the long run. Smooth supply chains for capitalist profit and a sound education in high school and college would ensure that workers not only know how to do their jobs but that they would be creative-thinkers and innovators. Capitalists these days don’t want to invest in these things, and this is why the infrastructure in Yankeedom is falling apart and the Yankee population cannot compete with students from other countries with better educational systems.

What is World Systems Theory?

World systems theory is a macro-sociological theory of long-term social change which includes economic theory and world history. It is provocative in at least three ways. One, its basic unit of analysis is the entire world-system of capitalism rather than nation-states. Second, it argues that the so-called socialist societies were not really socialist, but rather state-capitalist. Third, global capitalism organizes itself into a transnational division of labor which ignores the boundaries of nation-states. World-systems theory has been used by historians, international relations theorists, and international political economists to explain the rise and fall of nation-states, the increase and decrease in stratification patterns, as well as rise and decline of imperialism. Christopher Chase-Dunn and Terry Boswell have specialized in understanding social movements and the timing and placing of revolutions from a world-systems perspective.

Economic Zones Within the World-system

Overview of the core, periphery                                                 

World-systems are divided into three zones: the core, the semi-peripheral, and the peripheral countries. Economically and politically, core countries dominate other countries without being dominated. Semi-periphery countries are dominated by the core, and, in turn, dominate the periphery. The periphery are dominated by both. Part of the wealth of core countries comes from their exploitation of the peripheral countries’ land and labor through colonization.

Core and periphery

The core countries control most of the wealth in the world capitalist system. Workers are highly specialized, high technology is used. It has an industrial-electronic base. They extract raw materials from the peripheral countries and sell peripheral countries finished products. Core countries have the most highly specialized workers and a relatively small agricultural base, whereas peripheral countries have strong agricultural or horticultural bases and have a semi-skilled urban working class. The peripheral countries have relatively unspecialized labor whose work is labor-intensive with low wages. Much of the work done in peripheral countries is commercial agriculture—the production of coffee, sugar, and cotton.

The core countries are the home of the transnational corporations who control the world. Additionally, the core countries control the major banking institutions that provide international loans, such as the IMF and the World Bank. Finally, the core countries have the most powerful militaries. Paradoxically, when core countries are at their peak, their militaries are not very active. They only become more active as a core country goes into decline, as in the United States. Core countries typically have the most highly trained workers. In their heyday, core countries have strong centralized states that provide for pensions, unemployment, and road construction. In their weak stage, states withdraw these benefits and invest in their military to protect their assets abroad as their own territory falls apart. Core countries have large tax bases and, at their best, support infrastructural development.

The periphery nations own very little of the world’s means of production. In the case of African states or tribes, they have great amounts of natural resources, including diamonds and minerals, but these are extracted by the core countries. Furthermore, core states are usually able to purchase raw materials and cheap labor from non-core states at low prices and yet demand higher prices for their exports to non-core states. Core states have access to cheap skilled professional labor through migration (brain drain) from semi-peripheral states . Peripheral countries don’t have a solid tax base because their states have to contend with rival ethnic and tribal forces who are hardly convinced that taxes are good for them and their sub-national identities.

Peripheral countries often do not have a diversified economic base and are forced by the world market to produce one product. A good example of this is Venezuela and its oil. Peripheral countries have relatively steeper stratification patterns because there are no middle classes for the wealth to spread across. A tiny landed elite at the top sells off most of the land to transnational corporations. The state tends to be both weak and strong. States in the periphery have difficulty forming and sustaining their own national economic policy because foreign corporations want to come and go as they please. On the other hand, if a nationalist or a socialist rise to power, the state will be very strong and dictatorial. This is because they are constantly at war with transnational corporations who seek to overthrow them. Since transnational corporations often do this through oppositional parties, those in power are extremely suspicious of oppositional parties. Hence their label as “authoritarian”. In contemporary world systems, peripheries are found in parts of Latin America and in the most extreme form in Sub-Saharan Africa.


The semi-periphery contains countries that as a result of national liberation movements and class struggles have risen out of the periphery and have some characteristics of the core. They can also be composed of formerly core countries that have declined. For example, Spain and Portugal were once core countries in Early Modern Europe. Semi-peripheral countries often take over industries the core no longer wants such as second-generation computers, appliances, or transportation systems. Semi-peripheral states enter the world systems with some degree of autonomy rather than simply a subordinate country. These industries are not strong enough to compete with core countries in “free trade”. Therefore, they tend to apply protectionist policies towards their industry. They tend to export more to peripheral states and import more from core states in trade. In the 21st century, states like Brazil, Argentina, Russia, India, Israel, China, South Korea and South Africa (BRICS) are usually considered semi peripheral.

As I said above, the world capitalist system has changed four times in the last 500 years and each time not only have the configurations of the core countries changed but so have the semi peripheral countries in the world systems. For at least half of capitalist world systems, there were some countries that were outside the periphery, including the United States. Semi-peripheral countries are not fully industrialized countries, but they have scientists and engineers which can lead to some wealth.

Which countries are in the core periphery and semi periphery countries today?

The core countries in the world today are the United States, Germany, Japan, and the Scandinavian social democratic countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. Minor core countries are England, France, Italy, and Spain. Eastern European countries are in the semi-periphery. South of the border, there are four semi-periphery countries: Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. More powerful up and coming semi-peripheral states include Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia, China, and India. Most of Africa is in the periphery of the world systems with the exception of South Africa (semi-periphery).

Where did world systems theory come from?

Immanuel Wallerstein was a sociologist who specialized in African studies, so he had first-hand knowledge of the reality of exploitation by colonists. He was influenced by the work of Ferdinand Braudel who wrote a great three-volume history of capitalism. Wallerstein was also influenced by Marx and Engels, but he thought their history of capitalism was too Eurocentric. He emphasized that the core countries did not just exploit their own workers, but they have made great profits through the systematic exploitation of the peripheral countries for hundreds of years.

Modernization theory

World systems theory was in part a reaction against the anti-communist, modernization theory of international politics that prevailed after World War II into the 1960’s. Please see the table below which compares world systems theory to modernization theory.

Dependency theory of Andre Gunder Frank

Around the same time as world systems theory developed, Andre Gunder Frank developed what came to be called “dependency theory”. This theory also challenged modernization theory’s assumption that countries that were called “traditional societies” were improved by contact with the core countries. He claimed that they were systematically exploited by the core countries, made worse than they were before they had any contact with them. As long ago as 1998, Gunder Frank predicted the rise of China. See his book ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age.

Karl Polyani

Other influences on the world-systems theory come from a scholar of comparative economic systems, Karl Polyani. His major contribution is to show that there was no capitalism in tribal or agricultural civilizations and that the “self-subsisting” economy of capitalism was a relatively recent development. Wallerstein reframed this in world systems terms, with the tribal as “mini-systems”, agricultural civilization as “empires” and the capitalist system as “world economies”. Nikolai Kondratiev introduced patterns he saw in the capitalist world economy that centered around cycles of crisis and wars within very specific time periods.

Interstate System

As I said earlier, in international relations theory, realist and neo-conservative theory and neoliberal theories of the state treat each state as if they were separate units. Applied to today, that would formulate world conflict as a battle between, say, the United States and Russia. Neo-conservative and neoliberal theory treat any alliance between states as secondary epiphenomenon that can be dissolved without too much trouble. Secondly, both these theories operate as if interstate politics are relatively autonomous from economics. To the extent to which these theories mention capitalism, it is the domestic economy of nation-states. Each tries to hide the international nature of capitalism and the extent to which transnational corporations can, and do, override national interests. The ideology of the interstate system is sovereign equality, but this is practically overridden as states are treated as neither sovereign nor equal, especially in Africa.

World systems theory sees states differently. For one thing, nation-states are not like Hobbes atoms which crash against each other in a war of all against all. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, fresh after the Thirty Years’ War, was an attempt to move beyond dynastic empires to nation-states. In core capitalist countries there were never single nation states. The Treaty created a system of nation-states which had rules of engagement, treaties, do’s and don’ts.

Today, between the core, periphery, and semi-periphery countries lies a system of interconnected state relationships. This interstate system arose either as a concomitant process or as a consequence of the development of the capitalist world-system over the course of the “long” 16th century as states began to recognize each other’s sovereignty.

Between these economic zones there were no enforceable rules about how nation-states should act, outside of not impeding the flow of capital between zones. Political domestic elites, international elites, and corporations competed and cooperated with each other, the results of which no one intended. Unsuccessful attempts have been made by the League of Nations and later the United Nations to create an international state. However, nation-states have been unwilling to give up their weapons. Therefore, the international anarchy of capitalist production is still unchecked. The function of the state is to regulate the flow of capital, labor, and commodities across borders and to enforce the structure of market rates. Not only do strong states impose their will on weak states. Strong states also impose limitations on other strong states, as we are seeing with US sanctions against Russia.

Who Will Be the Next World-Economy Hegemon?

Situation in Ukraine

Everything about Ukraine needs to be understood as the desperate clawing of a Yankee empire terrified of being left behind. The U.S. has so far convinced Europe to stay away from Russia and China, but it has nothing to offer. As Gary Olsen said, the Europeans may slowly make deals with Russia and China because they have some sense of where the future lies. So, Western hydra-headed totalitarian media all speak with the same voice: RUSSIA, RUSSIA, EVIL RUSSIA. EVIL PUTIN. Putin certainly had nerve wanting a national economy with its own economic policy. God forbid! But the time is up for Yankeedom and no terrorist police, no military drones, no Republicrats, and no stock exchange jingling with the trappings of divine honor can stop it.

The weakness of Europe

 So, if Yankeedom is in decline (and even Brzezinski admitted this) who are the new contenders? Up until maybe five years ago, I thought Germany might be, with its industrial base and its strong working class. But in the last five years German standards of living have declined. It seems that the EU is in the midst of cracking up. There is no leadership with the departure of Angela Merkel. Macron is on the way out in France. All the other countries in Europe, including Italy, are under water with debt. England is the puppy dog of the United States and hasn’t been a global power in over 100 years. Germany, Spain, Italy, and Greece could be helped enormously by allaying themselves with Russia and China, but at this point most Europeans have been bullied and complicit in myopically siding with a collapsing United States. There is a good chance the US will drag most of Europe down with them.

Collapse of the core zones?

As we have seen, according to world systems theory, the history of capitalism has had three zones: core, periphery, and semi-periphery. The countries that have inhabited the three zones have changed along with the dominant hegemon over the last 500 years, and we are now in unprecedented territory. There is a good chance that the entire batch of formerly core states, the United States, Britain, France, and the west will collapse and that the core capitalist system will be without a hegemon (with the possible exception of the Scandinavian countries). China seems to be about ten years away from assuming that position.

2022-2030 the reign of the semi-periphery?

So, is it fair to say there is a huge tectonic shift where most of the core countries will collapse and the world system will have no core for maybe 20 years? It seems clear that the new hegemon is going to be China. Arrighi and Gunder Frank both thought this. But China is still a semi-periphery country and it might take 10-15 years to enter the core. Meanwhile its allies, Russia and Iran, are also semi-periphery countries. In South America, Argentina had the foresight to sign on the Chinese Belt Road Initiative. Brazil and Chile are still uncommitted to China and occupy a semi-peripheral status. The big country in Asia is India. It is very important to the Yankees not to lose control of India, and they have all the reason in the world to beat war drums in an attempt to demonize China. If a right winger such as Modi can refuse to side against Russia in the current events in Ukraine, will a more moderate or social democratic president of India have the vision to see the future lies in aligning with China? I wouldn’t count on it given the behavior of green-social democrat leadership in Germany.

The only European countries who seem to have made their way through 40 years of Neoliberal austerity, the collapse of Yugoslavia, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of fascist parties in Europe are the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. There is no reason why they could not maintain core status, though China would be the leading power.

The new hegemon China and the world-system in 2030  

I can imagine the world-system in 2030 could consist of China and the Scandinavian countries in the core, with Russia, Iran, and maybe Brazil, Argentina and Chile on the semi-periphery along with possibly India. I don’t know where to place the US and Europe. Since they are drunk with finance capital, it is unfair to put them in the semi-periphery, which is usually involved in productive scientific endeavors. Yet they are more productive than the peripheral countries. Africa could be the last battleground between the decadent Yankee and European imperialists who live on as neo-colonial crypto-imperialists attempting to either sell arms to Africans or directly set up regimes and enslave Africans to work the mines.

If China is able to develop African productive forces with the Belt Road Initiative, it might be an incentive to calm down the ethnic warfare there. It would be a wonderful thing if the African states could finally control the enormous wealth of their country. We cannot expect too much from China. The best they could do would be to invest in cultivating scientists and engineers to build up Africa as a fully industrialized continent. To me, what matters about China is not arguing whether or not it is really socialist, but that it is doing what Marx liked best about capitalism: developing the productive forces.

The prospects for a world state?

We cannot expect the Yankee state to decline peacefully and not start World War III. Is it possible to have a global capitalist realignment without starting World War III? As Chris Chase-Dunn has advocated for decades, we need a world state that has the capability to enforce a ban on interstate warfare. That is not likely now. The only attempts at this: the League of Nations and the United Nations happened after the misery of two world wars. Both attempts at world state have failed because nation-states would not agree to give up their weapons.

What about world ecology?                                                                              

But as world systems theorist Chris Chase Dunn points out, a Chinese-centered world still inherits the increasing ecological destruction that has been an inherent part of the world system since the industrial revolution and now the global pandemic. This includes extreme weather (hot and cold), pollution of land and oceans with plastics and the products of industrialization like carbon, flooding from global warming, and desertification of lands due to droughts and monocropping.

What about Marx’s dream of shrinking the ratio between freedom and necessity in the light of ecological disaster?

For Marx and Engels, the dream of socialism was based on abundance. Unfortunately, because socialism first took place in what Wallerstein would call peripheral or semi-peripheral countries, socialism has come to be associated with poverty. An implication that could be drawn under socialism is that people should expect to be poor and share the poverty equally. That is the opposite of how Marx and Engels saw things. They hoped that socialism would first break out in the west in an industrialized country, with an organized working-class party taking the lead. They hoped that the revolution of overthrowing capitalism would preserve its material abundance, technology, and scientific achievements, not tear them to the ground. They wanted to develop the forces of production that capitalism unleashed while abolishing the political economy of private property over means of production. As socialism developed, the collective creativity of workers would shrink the ratio between necessary work and freedom. What does this mean?

This meant that workers would either:

  1. a) work less and produce the same amount
  2. b) work the same amount but produce more
  3. c) work more and produce much more

In other words, workers would have an increase in the number of choices of what to do with their free time because of an increase in the technology and collective creativity to produce more with less. My question is, given the irreversible ecological situation we are in, is it still realistic to expect socialism will continue to be based on abundance? I can imagine that the way China is going, in that part of the world it may still be possible. I also suspect that in the Scandinavian countries it might be possible. The problem is that global pandemics, extreme weather, flooding, desertification, and pollution cannot easily, if at all, be contained within countries that are capitalist or socialist.

How Reliable is World-systems Theory?

I will limit criticisms of world systems theory to those of a political and economic nature. One common criticism is the struggle to do empirical research with a unit of analysis being the entire world system. This is not to say world systems theorists do not do empirical work, because they do. It is more a matter of how to derive meaningful relationships between variables at such a complex level of abstraction. Statistics for individual nation states are easier to manage, although nation-states are not autonomous actors.

Another criticism is that the successes of existing socialist states are in danger of being given the short shrift. Like many in the West, the first line of criticism by world systems theorists of socialist countries is that they are one-party dictatorships. While this may be true, there is good reason why communist parties in power are nervous about the prospect of oppositional parties being used by foreign capitalists to overthrow them. In addition, socialist countries have better records than capitalist countries on the periphery in the fields of literacy (reading and writing), low-cost housing, healthcare, and free education. Please see Michael Parenti, Black Shirts and Reds for more on this.

The third major criticism comes from orthodox Marxist, Robert Brenner. Brenner claims that the emphasis by world systems theorists on the relationship between economic zones comes at a cost to understanding the class structure within and between nation-states. I think world systems theorists are well aware of class relationships, but they choose to focus on the capitalist relationships between states. Lastly, Theda Skocpol argues that world systems theory understates the power of the state in international affairs. The state is not just the creature of transnational capital. States engage in military competition which long s capitalism. State structures compete with each other.

On a positive note, as I said earlier, Christopher Chase-Dunn has done some creative work with Terry Boswell in tracking the timing and location of rebellions and revolutions in the 500 years of the world systems in Spirals of Capitalism and Socialism. In addition, he wrote a very groundbreaking book with Tom Hall Rise and Demise, which challenges Wallerstein by suggesting that there were precapitalist world systems that go all the way back to hunter-gatherers. Also see my book with him, Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present.

• First published in Socialist Planning Beyond Socialism

The post Tectonic Shifts in the World Economy: A World Systems Perspective first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The Mythology, Ritual, and Art of Romantic Socialism


For the most part socialists and members of organized religion seem to be opposites. After all, didn’t Marx say religion was the opium of the people, the heart of a heartless world? But has it always been this way? Socialists in the 19th century had very different ideas about the importance of mythology, ritual, and art. But could19th century socialist engage in these activities without getting caught up in supernatural ideas and reified images? This article discusses the efforts of William Morris, Walter Crane, and the Knights of Labor to bring heaven down to earth.


The need for art, myth, and ritual in socialism

Despite its seemingly secular orientation, literature scholar Terry Eagleton has said that socialism has been a greater reform movement than religion, in fact, it has been the greatest reform movement in human history. But in order to achieve these reforms, economic reorganization of society by itself was not enough to move people. There also needed to be socialist culture, artistry, aesthetics, symbolism, rituals, and mythology. However, you would never know it if you looked at socialist practice for most of the 20th century, especially in Germany and in Yankeedom. Stefan Arvidsson says this about the classical description in historical materialism. The description of how different modes of production have emerged and how socialism of necessity will precede capitalism has something glaringly mythic about which modernist socialists never capitalized on. Karl Kautsky, the socialist Pope of the Second International, went so far as to state that socialism had no ideals to realize, no goals to reach, everything was a secular movement, with no myths and no rituals. Yet all movements, secular or spiritual, need appeal to collective emotions, awaken hope while giving structure to disappointments, sadness and anger. Romantic socialism did this well in the 19th century but why was it so reluctant to claim the same legacy in the 20th century?

Enlightenment and Socialist Criticisms of religion

In his book The Style and Mythology of Socialism: Socialist idealism, 1871-1914, Stefan Arvidsson names three of the most typical left-wing criticisms of religion:

1) Rational – the claim that religion is false. Religion contradicts the factual description of reality offered by the natural sciences. There is no god in heaven; magic is built on faulty premises and faith healing doesn’t work. This was the Enlightenment criticism.

2) Political – priests and the church claim divine authority to control crowds and legitimize the right to their privileges and that of political and economic elites.

This can be seen in Catholicism and Protestant elites in Europe and the United States. It is present in Islamic elites and the Brahminical Hinduism of Modi. It is present among Zionist elites in Israel. This slant also came out of the Enlightenment.

3) Ideological – this is the criticism of Feuerbach and Marx. It affirms that God is the alienated creativity of the masses. What people cannot do on earth, they project onto heaven. It’s the promise of a world to come in order to sugarcoat the lack of a prosperous world in this life.

I believe all these criticisms are right. The problem is:

  1. They are undialectical and do not ask the question of why religion has maintained itself for thousands of years in spite of these criticisms. Surely from a Darwinian point of view, if religion was just irrational, a political trick or an ideological mystification keeping people in mental chains, why didn’t natural selection filter it out?
  2. Religion is held at arm’s length. All the methods of religion – myths, rituals, holidays, sacraments, pilgrimages, art, altered states – were hot potatoes, too hot to handle. This unfortunate circumstance has kept socialists in the 20th century from learning from and using these spiritual tools in a non-reified, non-superstitious way.

My claim

The purpose of this article is to say:

  • Religious art, myth, rituals, symbols and techniques for altering states of consciousness should be taken over by socialists and used to our benefit.
  • The Knights of Labor and some socialists the 19th century knew how to do this and we must learn from them.

Plan for the article

The plan of this article is first to ask if socialism is a religion. My response if that I don’t think it’s a religion. Then I will examine the characteristics of romantic socialism in the first half and second half of the 19th century. I then turn to the Christian mythology of the Bible, the positivism and the religion of humanity and lastly the pagan claims of Jules Michelet and the work of Ricard Wagner. I then discuss socialist art, including the work of William Morris and William Crane. Next, I examine the political application or romantic socialism to the organization of the Knights of Labor.

In the last part of my article, I will discuss how romantic socialism was gradually replaced by modernist socialism. I close with a discussion of how romantic socialism missed the boat by relying on the slave religion of Christianity for its inspiration rather than a pagan tradition which is much more consistent with the anti-authoritarian nature of romantic socialism.

Is socialism a religion?

There is a beehive of conservatives who were all too happy to claim that, contrary to its atheist claims, socialism is a religion in its own right. In the Psychology of Socialism, Le Bon points out many quasi-religious phenomena of socialism like feasts, saints, martyrs, canonical texts, revolutionary myths, holy symbols and ritualized speech. Georges Sorel argued that the value of socialism does not rest with its material success or failure. Socialism as a kind of myth which gives people hope. It is fair to say that like any religion, socialism has a list of mythological events – Thomas Müntzer leading the German peasants, John Ball leading the English peasants in England, and Robin Hood (myth or not) robbing the rich to give to the poor. In the 19th and 20th centuries we had the Paris Commune, the storming of the Winter Palace in Russia, worker’s self-management during the Spanish Revolution and the life of Che to name a few. Even now, socialism still depends on symbolism – the red rose of the social democrats, the red star of revolutionary socialism and the encircling A of anarchism all show that socialism needs images to inspire.

Modern socialists, especially Marxists, have resisted the idea that it may be appropriate to label socialism as a surrogate religion because they claimed that socialism is scientific. In addition, as a Marxist I would claim that socialism is not a religion because the root meaning of religion is to bind-back, implying that something was lost. What was lost is a community which bound classless, pagan, and tribal societies together. Religion is a social emulsifier designed to paper over class differences. As Marx writes, it is the heart of a heartless world. Socialist attempts to create a classless society are designed to create a real binding, a heaven on earth, a return to primitive communism, but on a higher level. But polarizing socialism to be the opposite of religion was not the way socialists of the 19th century framed things. These socialists understood that religious means could be used to create socialist ends.

Romantic socialism

Romanticism is not an easy term to define and it covers the entire political spectrum.

Arvidsson names five “colors” of romanticism. Blue romanticism is the dreamy, sublime artistic romanticism of Schiller, Shelley and Byron.  There is white romanticism which is a religious and clerical tradition of revolutionary romantic lodges, and Christian socialists and the Knights of Labor. This form of romanticism wanted to take the individualist blue romanticism to the masses. Red and black romanticism is the romanticism of the anarchists, Sorel and artistically the symbolists’ writers. Green romanticism is the romanticism of the radical arts and crafts – Morris, and life reform movement. Yellow romanticism is what I would call the art-for-art’s sake of Oscar Wilde.

1st half of the 19th century

The socialism of early 19th century, what Marx and Engels would have called utopian socialism, began with the experiments in communist living of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. These societies operated on a small scale and combined farming and artisan work, prior to the specialization of labor. Here workers did many more parts of the job than what happened in the specialization of labor in the second half of the 19th century. The emphasis in this community is characterized by Arvidsson as fraternity, intensity, and authenticity. These values were most clearly embedded in the work of Jean Rousseau, John Ruskin and later, William Morris. What made them so different from the socialism of the end of the 19th century was their incorporation of religion with its myth, rituals and art.

2nd half of the 19th century

Surprisingly, the thinker who had the most impact when it came to spreading the expression “religion of socialism” was the person whom Marx characterized as “our philosopher”, Joseph Dietzgen. His was a kind of the Feuerbach-inspired religion of humanity. For Dietzgen, this new religion has two parts:

  • scientific knowledge wherein nature is tamed; and,
  • science through “magic” – that is, the creative power of labor. It is magic because nature is transformed through work. Work is the name of the new redeemer.

Some advocates of the religion of socialism wished to appropriate socialist hymns, socialist saints, socialist sacraments, socialist rituals and even a socialist Ten Commandments.

Even funeral rites began to be ritualized within the religion of socialism. The great revolutionary socialist Ferdinand Lasalle believed that his political meetings were reminiscent of the very earliest religions. In the early years Wagner, the Viking revivalist, dreamed of creating an opening for revolutionary change with his epic opera. Later on, we will revisit this period and examine the practices of the Knights of Labor. Feeding forward a bit, in the early 20th century Russian authors Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, and Alexander Bogdanov seized the initiative to create a “god-building” movement. The idea was to merge positivists and left-wing Hegelian religion of humanity, a-la Dietzgen and Wagner.


Christian mythology

Socialists in the 19th century were not squeamish about drawing on the Bible to justify their movement. The books of the prophets have been the greatest inspiration for people to fight back. These books tell of rage against the shortcomings of their leaders and condemn social injustices. The man who did the most to link Jesus to the labor movement was George Lippard. For him, Jesus was a worker with class-consciousness. Famously, there is the painting and description of how Jesus cast out all the money-changers from the temple and overthrew the tables. The biblical figure of Mammon become the name of the god of money. Later in classical mythology Pluto is also the god of wealth, involving money and securities.

In Mark (in the Bible), there is the saying it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  The socialism of Blatchford and Keir Hardie was wrapped up in biblical language. At some point, Debs says “Just as a missionary goes out and preaches to the heathen in foreign countries, so we socialists got on soap boxes and persuaded people that industry could be run for use and not for profit.” (Page 216 of Style and Mythology of Socialism). The president of the union for miners in Illinois preached about the divine origin of labor unions. An English Baptist preacher declared that the capitalist market economy is more in keeping with the gladiatorial than a Christian theory of existence.

Positivism and the religion of humanity

There were a number of famous Christian socialists who were not waiting around for the life hereafter. During the 19th century they included Henri de Saint-Simon, Étienne Cabet, Wilhelm Weitling, Moses Hess, and later in the century, Leo Tolstoy.

In the case of August Comte, it was the human being that were to be worshiped as a deity in the making. Over time, Arvidsson says positivism developed into a full-fledged religion, having even its own calendar composed of writers and inventors like Dante, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, while excluding Christian figures. This religion of humanity included rituals, temples and mythical heroes.

It is easy to dismiss the Christian socialist as not real. But it may surprise you to know that some of the members of the Second International were trying to integrate religion with socialism. For example:

One of those most driven to establish a religion of humanity in Great Britain was Morris’ friend and partner within the Social Democratic Federation and Socialist League, E. Belfort Bax (212). Bax writes:

The religion of the future must point to the immorality of the social man. The religion of socialism can contribute to extending the life of the individual. (224)

What Bax meant was that the immortality of social man would be embedded in the processes and results of building socialism on earth. The individual is immortalized in the collective creations they built in the bridges, buildings, books, paintings, and weavings that became the fabric of the new world long after the individual is dead.

Witches and pagans

Jules Michelet was one of the first historians to consider witchcraft not merely as a religious controversy but as a resistance movement of the peasantry. Arvidsson says he introduced the witch as a proto-socialist whose Chthon-ic gods and goddesses were seen as a viable spiritual alternative to a Christianity which seemed increasingly to have come into conflict with scientific truths.

Just as Michelet brought in pagan witches, William Morris, the revolutionary, was nostalgically fascinated with the Viking Age, especially with anti-royalist Iceland. He studied Old Icelandic, which lead to a translation of the Völsunga Saga. Later when we examine the art of Walter Crane, we will see his work as a longing for a sensuality hedonism and paganism. It belongs to the primitive tradition of Rousseau and Fourier. We can see his paganism when Crane imagined the laborers’ holidays as being a more Dionysian affair.

All primitive magical rituals use all the arts in order to create an altered state of consciousness. This included costume making, music, myth, storytelling, mask-making and dance. For most of western history, with the exception of within the Catholic Church, the arts became separate from the sacred. It was Richard Wagner who reunited them in his epic theatrical productions which included drama, opera, and ritual. It is tempting to dismiss Wagner because of his right-wing turn towards the end of his life, but he was once a leftist:

In Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, beautiful music is wrapped together with anarchist revelations about the corrosive forces of power and wealth, and the innate idealism of natural human beings. (142)

Wagner says:

We should never be careful not to underestimate the yearning by many people to be part of something big and beautiful. Fellowship was all well and good, but men needed something to whet their appetites. (143)

Unfortunately, the modernist socialists never understood this.

Wagner’s use of Norse and Medieval texts for his opera The Ring, which he began working on during the revolutionary days of 1848 when he fought with Bakunin on the streets of Dresden. The Ring is about the curse of greed. Regardless of Wagner’s right-wing turn, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet minister of culture and education, liked Wagner. In 1933, the 50th anniversary of Wagner’s death, Lunacharsky paid homage to him by describing the composer as a musician who gets the spirits to gather. A famous Swedish example of the anti-capitalist use of Norse mythology is Viktor Rydberg’s interpretation of the Edda poem Grottasöngr. 

Socialist Aesthetics

Idealist aesthetics in the 19th century claimed that the task of art – whether it was poetry, literature, music, or painting – was a way to uplift us and to point the way to the ideal. They wanted to help transform people into more virtuous human beings. 

William Morris

John Ruskin was mercilessly critical of civilization and culture and felt that it oozed of modern decay and decadence. His most driven spokesperson was the great English socialist, William Morris. Morris distinguishes society from civilization and says he hates civilization. For Morris, socialism and anarchism replaced Ruskin’s “blue” romantic elitism. He wanted to align those ideas with Ruskin’s romantic criticism of civilization. Morris’s ideals certainly stemmed from Ruskin and Walter Pater’s Renaissance ideas of beauty. Morris used to say art is man’s expression of his joy in labor. All work should or could be art. Beautiful objects are created by beautiful working environments. For Morris, the reward of labor is life. An ideal society is a society that is not only encouraged by art but is in and of itself a work of art. For Morris, socialism implied a complete philosophy of life that comprised the Good and the True as well as the Beautiful.

At the end of the 1889 into the 1890s, William Morris and the arts and crafts movement stood for the first radical artistic change. Morris and his disciples were not only concerned with graphic design but also with full aesthetic programs for handicraft, architecture, city planning, conservation, art, and literature. The aim was:

  • The transformation of life
  • The transformation of the conditions of physical labor

The purpose was that life and work cease to be alienated. For Morris, articles become beautiful when they are created from the joyful laboring of a rich personality.

Walter Crane

According to Arvidsson, no one meant more for the socialist culture of visual arts in the late 19th to early 20th century than Walter Crane. Crane joined the Socialist League under the leadership of Morris and Eleanor Marx Aveling. He marched in pro-Irish demonstrations, which would be later known as Bloody Sunday. In his painting, Socialist Valkyrie, the peace of socialism triumphs over the warring knights of liberalism and conservativism. Many of his political posters, Solidarity of Labor; Labour’s May Day 1890; the Worker’s Maypole; The Cause of Labor and the Hope of the World have been copied. For the first time in the history of the world, a socialist iconography had been created. Crane believed that artists learn from the handicraft traditions of folk culture. The artist should look downward towards the lower class and to nature for inspiration, not upwards towards some kind of ingenious spiritual inspiration. The engraving The Triumph of Labor (1891), was Crane’s most famous, commemorating the socialist May Day and the definitive image of English socialism. In Walter Crane’s painting of Freedom, the angel frees humanity from both the animalistic power of the king and the transcendentalism of the priests. In another painting, the famous French icon Marianne leads workers to attack the class enemy.

In a May Day parade, socialists carry Crane’s prints of The Triumph of Labor, which Arvidsson describes in the following way:

In the thick of the procession walks a winged bringer of light…Liberte Marianne…The personifications…bleed into one another. Beside her, a boy leads a mounted farmer and they are closely followed by Monsieur Egalitarian and Fraternity…

The figures of the French Revolution are followed by the two oxen, a woman with a cornucopia – perhaps Demeter and a young man playing a flute (Pan or a satyr) – and a young woman dancing with a tambourine.  (maenad) (192)

Even leading Austrian Marxists consciously tried to infuse May Day with religious solemnity and messianic feelings.

Socialist Romanticism in Politics: The Knights of Labor

Description of the Material Vision of the Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor was the largest and the most powerful labor organization of late 19th century in North America. Skilled and unskilled laborers were welcomed, as were women and black workers. The order tried to teach the American wage earner that s/he was a wage earner first, a brick layer, carpenter, miner and shoemaker after that. He was a wage earner first, and a Catholic, Protestant and Jew, white, Democrat, Republican after.

Surprisingly for a labor organization, in the spirit of fraternity, politics and religion were forbidden topics of conversation in the congregation’s building.

The Goals were:

  • To make industrial and moral growth, not wealth, the true standard of individual and national greatness.
  • To secure for the workers the full enjoyment of the wealth they create, and sufficient leisure in which to develop their intellectual moral and social faculties.

Their constitution included the following:

The implementation of safety measures for miners; prohibition of children under 15 from working in factories; a national monetary system independent of banks; nationalization of the telegraph, telephone and railway networks; the creation of cooperative businesses; equal work for equal pay irrespective of gender; a refusal to work more than 8 hours per day. (p. 91)

The Knights felt it was immoral and blasphemous to live off the work of others. Toil was one thing, but to be exploited was another. Under capitalism, they struggled with how to pay tribute to essential and natural creative work without defending alienation of labor. They believed labor was the only thing that generates value.

Knights of Labor as a Secret Society

The Knights of Labor was no ordinary labor organization. They wanted to bring together humanity, hand, head, and heart. The Knights used medievalist mythology as part of the overall trend towards a Gothic revival. Guild socialism was a notion that Middle Ages was valued because it was believed that economics and ethics had not yet been torn from each other. There was a fraternal secret of laborers with rituals, special handshakes, devotional songs, and mythologies. Officials within the order thus acted as a kind of priests and there was a pledge to be loyal to the order and not to reveal any of its secrets. Devotional songs were sung and organ music filled the air. Cooperation is portrayed as divine. The lodges were like seeds that are scattered over the earth and like all seeds, they struggle to germinate and grow. For the Knights of Labor, the philosopher’s stone was no philosophical process of turning dross matter into gold. It was the process of work itself.

Here is a recommendation for a poetic recitation during the opening ceremony:

Notice the combination of matter and spirit throughout the poem: granite and rose, archangel and bee, flames of sun and stars. Notice a pantheistic view of God. This was a theological orientation associated with political radicalism during the 19th century:

God of the Granite and the Rose

Soul of archangel and the bee
The mighty tide of being flows
Through every channel, Lord from Thee
It springs to life in grass and flowers
Through every grade of being runs
Till from Creations radiant towers
Thy glory flames in stars and suns

In 1879 Terrace Powderly was elected grand master workman and he began reworking the images of socialism used for agitation purposes. For example, in the painting of the Great Seal of Knighthood, humanity joins together in the form of a circle around God’s triangle in the Great Seal. Arvidsson points out that Powderly added some new touches. Instead of abstractions like creation, justice, humanity, he added labor. He changes the triangle of God on the inside to the process of laboring: of production, distribution and consumption. The pentagon is changed to the five days of the work-week. Finally, the hexagon on the outside is changed to a symbol of various tools.

For the Knights the handshake was secret, but the manner of the shake was rooted in labor. The emphasis on the importance of the thumb was intended to reinforce how important an opposable thumb is compared with other fingers.  The thumb makes possible humanities such the use of tools at work, in the fine arts and in craftsmanship. Lastly the production of buttons, pins, and portraits of the founders and of Powderly were made. He was first American working-class hero of national stature.

The Fall of Romantic Socialism

According to Arvidsson, after the devastations of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune, romanticism was on the run in Europe. In the second half of the 19th century romantic socialism had to compete with other cultural styles. For romantic socialism, it was the ideal of the good that was designated in symbols. But alongside it there were now artistic movements of realism and naturalism for which the ideal was not what was good, but what was true – including the dark side of social reality. In the light of the naturalistic outlook with its scientific eye for the less beautiful side of humanity, romanticism seems meaningless, moralizing and out of touch with reality. With Darwinism, the time had become ripe for vitalism, where life was seen as a struggle, where the strong and the sound, not the honest, noble and beautiful triumphed.

Oscar Wilde was the mediator between Morris and Crane’s romanticism on the one hand and modernism on the other. Wilde wanted to link socialism with aestheticism and wanted to revolutionize society so that the life of people will be to become artistic. With Wilde, aestheticism returned to romanticism in emphasizing the importance of beauty, but with a difference. For romantics what was beautiful had to have a particular content, namely, the cause of workers. But for aestheticism it was the principles of beauty independent of its application.

From fraternal order to trade union

For the founders and many of the leaders of the Knights of Labor, the single-minded pursuit of higher salaries seemed narrow and short-sighted. They strove instead to create a higher culture. A sizable chunk of workers’ experience is dismissed if ritual and fraternity is ignored. But attitudes towards fraternalism as a form of struggle began to change at the turn of the century. The mythic and religious aspects of the Knights of Labor were toned down as a consequence of the Catholic Church’s criticism and threats. With the ritualistic dimension missing for the workers, the requirements for direct material success of labor organizations became more pressing. The experience of knighthood was to be replaced by membership in pragmatic oriented and often reformist or relatively apolitical, modern and secular trade unions. Within the political life of unions, socialist modernism suggested that fraternal organizations existed for the benefits of the leaders. They were seen as forms of social careerism for these “high priests”. In the US, it was the modern labor union and socialist-oriented political parties that replaced socialist fraternalism. Socialism came to be understood as economic and less and less to do with culture. Modernist socialists like Marx, Engels, and later Kautsky all took this stand.

From Fraternal order to Fabian Think Tank

In Britain Fabianism became a bridge between life reform and culture-oriented socialist romanticism and the social democratic parties that followed. The Fabian Society was founded in 1884. Members included Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Edward Carpenter, Havelock and Edith Ellis, H.G. Wells, Annie Besant, George Bernard Shaw, and Walter Crane. Early on, they cultivated a kind of life-style socialism, including vegetarianism. But they were not interested in ritual or dramatization. It became important for the Fabians to distance their modern socialism from bohemian lifestyle socialism and primitivist flirtations. The Webbs and Shaw founded the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1895. Political reform, which was foreign to the Knights of Labor, was another tendency that grew with the parliamentarian successes of socialist parties after they became legal. This impressed the Fabians.

From co-producer of culture to consumer of culture

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, mass advertising and department stores began to spring up, first in Paris and then on the east coast of Yankee cities. By the end of the 19th century, the rising consumer culture pulled the rug out from under both the Knights of Labor and the Fabians. Instead of listening to lectures and singing in the assembly halls, laborers started to visit the emergent theaters, amusement parks, and cabarets more frequently. Leisure was transformed from largely participatory to more passive, consumer activities. In the 19th century, people marched in parades. By the early 20th century, they cheered parades from the sidelines. Successful entrepreneurs were the new heroes in the kingdom of trade. The story lines contained within advertising and their logos replaced myth. Shopping sprees became the new rituals. Buying luxury items became modern talismans. Economists became soothsayers and prophets of economic growth. Old worker flags and banners of real people turned into stylized and geometrical forms.

From Utopia to Dystopia

The 19th century was the great century of Utopias whether in practical communist societies or theoretical novels. Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were different, with some supporting high technology and others not. However, all were optimistic. Twentieth century modernism was all pessimistic beginning with Jack London’s Iron Heel. In the first half of the 20th century utopian literature became dominated by three disillusioned ex-socialists: Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin’s We in 1921; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932; and Orwell’s 1984 in 1949.

Romanticism ended with World War I and lost out as a cultural style. However, it was rebirthed with the beats after World War II, the rise of the New Left, the counterculture of the 60s, and the New Age and Neopagan movements that began in the 1970s.

See the table at the end of this article which summarizes the differences between romantic and modern socialism.

Witchcraft and paganism as socialism’s lost opportunity

In the middle of this article, I mentioned the work of some progressives and socialists for whom witchcraft and paganism offered resources for hope. As I mentioned earlier, Jules Michelet claimed that witchcraft in the Middle Ages and in Early Modern Europe was a resistance movement of the peasantry against both the Church and the landlords. Later, William Morris saw the anti-royalist Vikings as inspiration enough for him to study the language of Iceland. Furthermore, the artwork of Walter Crane had many pagan elements in it. Lastly, Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk and The Ring are both about the curse of greed and corruption. But even more importantly Wagner combined his tales in epic proportion by saturating the senses with pageantry, music, dance, drama, and ritual. This was a throwback to the pagan rituals of tribal societies and more elaborately in agricultural states. Why wasn’t this seized on by romantic socialists more often instead of relying on the slave religion of Christianity for its inspiration?

The pagan tradition of tribal societies is much more consistent with the anti-authoritarian nature of romantic socialism. What I want to focus on is the Neopagan movement started by romantics in the middle of the 18th century and blossomed in the 1970s. I’ve written a number of articles agitating for a new pagan-Marxist synthesis. In my article New Agers vs Neopagans: Can Either Be Salvaged for Socialism? I identified many categories where there is full agreement between Neopagans, democratic socialists, anarchists and the various types of Leninists. Here are some of the commonalities from that article. Here is what both romantic and modern socialists are missing out on.

Western magic and matter as creative and self-regulating

Paganism and the western ceremonial magical traditions have deep roots in the West, from ancient Roman times through the Renaissance magicians, alchemists, Rosicrucians and up to the Golden Dawn at the end of the 19th century. All these traditions were committed to in some way redeeming matter. Matter was seen by all magical traditions as creative, self-regulating and immanent in this world. Pagans are either pantheists or polytheists. Like socialist materialists, matter is seen by pagans as real, rather than evil or an illusion. There is clearly a relationship between pagan pantheism and dialectical materialism.

Nature and society are objective forces that impact individuals and only groups change reality

Like socialists, Neopagans would never say individuals “create their own reality”. Neopagan nature is revered and must be taken care of. The forces of nature or the gods and goddesses actively do things to disrupt the plans and schemes of individuals. How would socialists react to this? Very positively. All socialists understand nature and society as evolving. Socialists understand that individuals by themselves can change little. It is organized groups which change the world. Since much of Neopagan rituals are group rituals, there would be compatibility in outlook here as well.

Embracing the aggressive and dark side of nature and society

Neopagans could never be accused of being fluffy or pollyannish. There is a recognition that there is dark side of nature. These dark forces must be worked with and integrated. Socialists would agree with this, but as the darkest force on this planet is capitalism, socialists would disagree that there can be any integration with capitalism.

Importance of the past: primitive communism and pre-Christian paganism

The past is very important to Neopagans mostly because of what Christianity did to pagans throughout Western history. The past is also very important to Marxists because primitive communism was an example of how humanity could live without capitalism.

Most Neopagans, like Marxists, are very pro-science

Chaos theory, complexity theory that would attract Neopagans is very much like Marxian dialectical materialism. While the Gaia hypothesis would be a stretch for materialists, Vernadsky’s Biosphere would be welcomed by Neopagans. Lastly, even primitivist anarchists are very interested in science fiction and how society could be better organized in the future.

Commonality between Wiccan covens and anarchist affinity groups or cells

There have never to my knowledge been pagan cults. Many Neopagans are generally an anti-authoritarian lot and organizing them can be like herding cats.  Many Neopagans, like socialists, are very anti-capitalist anarchists and Neopagan witches.

Politically many wiccan pagans like Starhawk’s Reclaiming have organized themselves anarchistically with consensus decision making. The most predictable anti-capitalists in Neopaganism are wiccans. Economically, the work of anarchist economist David Graeber would fit perfectly for Neopagan witch anarchists.

Commonality between Neopagan goddess reverence and socialist feminism

Wiccans are also very pro-feminist and some are organized where the goddess values of women are predominant. All this is good news for socialists, since Margot Adler has said that about half of the roughly 200,000 Neopagans are wiccans. A program for a socialist feminism could be easily taken in stride by most Neopagans.

Sensory saturation and inspired altered states of consciousness

I have saved these categories for last because this is the area of Neopaganism that might be the most actively contested by socialists, but it is also the area that I think Neopagans have the most to teach socialists. As I’ve stated in other articles, a good definition of magick is the art and science of changing group consciousness at will by saturating the senses through the use of the arts and images in ritual. Socialists are likely to dismiss this as dangerous because it sweeps people away. They are also likely to confuse this with religious rituals which religious authorities control their parishioners for the purposes of mystifying people and asserting control over them. This is a big mistake. Not all rituals are superstitious reifications. and when done well, are a way to empower people and built confidence. People in egalitarian societies, the ones Marxists call primitive communism, understood this. The pagan holiday Beltane May Day corresponds to socialist May Day celebrations around the world and a great place for the meeting of these movements. We need socialists in the arts, especially in dance, music, choreography and play-writing to join with Neopagans who are already good at this.

Table of Information from articleFirst published in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post The Mythology, Ritual, and Art of Romantic Socialism first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Why Study History? Why it Matters to the Yankee Population Who don’t Bother to Vote


Why bother?

“Why should I care about the past? The past is over. What matters is the present and the future. Besides, the only people in the history books are usually kings, generals, or politicians. I could care less about them. What do they do? Fight wars? Attend Congress? Schmooze? History is about dead people and dead institutions. History has nothing to do with me, my family, or my friends. As for politics, I don’t vote. Why bother? They don’t represent me. Why should I care about their inaugurations, balls, and conferences? Why should I care for any of this? This has nothing to do with my life.”

Whether or not this cynical view of history appears true has a great deal to do with the class location of the individual. People in the middle and upper classes might feel that wars, congresses, and their dates are important because they think we can learn from the past. They might say politicians and generals are more or less expressions of the popular will. “After all,” they might say, “understanding history means knowing how human ideals and values have changed over time.” After all,” they may say, “we surely have come a long way since primitive times in terms of age longevity, medicine, and the power of tools.”

My claim

The purpose of this article is to say that it is perfectly understandable that people who are working class and/or poor think studying history is a waste of time. But in large part that is because mainstream history is an ideological expression of the upper classes. What I hope to do is present an alternative view of history which is:

  •  Bottom up rather than top down;
  •  That is primarily made by working class people;
  •  Process driven, rather than event driven; and,
  • Is materialist oriented, with change being driven by population pressure and resource depletion, and class-struggle that is idealist oriented.

This understanding makes working class and poor people, (the people who don’t vote) care about history. If you’d like to see a high-contrast comparison between mainstream history vs a council communist understanding, please see the table at the end.

History from the bottom up

Perhaps it seems reasonable that the study of wars, dates, and the lives of famous men might be irrelevant, not because the past itself is irrelevant, but because our view of the past is partial and skewed. Until recently, history books only described the actions of extraordinary people – kings, generals, heads of state, or scientific or artistic geniuses. This kind of history leaves the mundane life of the average person almost completely out of the picture. The contribution of the majority of people to the shaping of societies constitutes a history that is still in the process of being written. The history of class, ethnic, and gender struggles has surfaced in academia relatively recently and, though incomplete and still largely unknown to the general public, is now unavoidable in serious discussions about the past. While the “people’s historians” offer an alternative view, it is not a monolithic one; they contest among themselves which events should be chosen for description and how those events should be interpreted.

These developments represent an important step forward. However, despite them, most people still fail to see the relevance of history to the present and the future. History seemed to be a subject that already happened. It is the imperfect record of an objective past that has occurred, has impacted us for better or worse, and seems to have vanished, giving us no further opportunity to modify it. Yet, what is missing is that past struggles between classes are like hot molten lava that becomes crystallized in the institutions of the present. In this sense the past is solidified in the present. Also, past struggles can be reinterpreted and reorganized, for better or worse, in terms of our present and future politics. All groups, both in power and struggling for power, reinterpret history in the service of their own cause. If that were not so, there would not be so many different interpretations of the same historical events. History is always political; it has never been the impartial study of objective events for its own sake.

The study of history can be subversive because it can expose the relativity of our most cherished institutions – private property, wage labor, institutionalized leadership, the virtue of acquisitiveness, individualism, and the worship of male deities. History can open up our imaginations by enabling us to learn from the beliefs and practices of early societies and, on the basis of what we have learned, reorganize our future. This subversive approach to history centers on a study of past problems for the purpose of understanding how the previous societies attempted to solve these problems – as well as on the unintended consequences which resulted from chosen solutions. Books by Jared Diamond like Guns Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed; and Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind are examples.

Conversely, not knowing about the past leaves us vulnerable to the belief that the current order of things is more or less the way it has always been, and by implication, the way it will always be. It means our social problems today, social solutions, and the consequences which follow seem to have no link to the past, leaving us robbed of the soil we grew out from.

Here, in summary, are the reasons for studying history I will attempt to show:

  • it is mostly about the average person;
  • it is mostly about the present and future;
  • it is malleable and open to change;
  • it exposes the relativity of our present institutions;
  • it can help us to reorganize our present and future; and,
  • it reduces the chances of repeating past mistakes.

The Dimensions of Society

Describing historical events without referring to the types of society they occur in is like an artist drawing the human figure in motion with no understanding of how the skeleton or the muscles of the body interact, to create certain possibilities and constraints to movement. History can only occur through the construction of relatively stable socio-cultural systems. A natural catastrophe in a hunting-and-gathering society will not have the same impact as it will in an industrial capitalist society. It is impossible to make sense of ecological crises, inventions, and famines without a prior understanding of the type of social structure they are impacting. World history occurs in concrete social systems – hunting and gathering societies, simple and complex horticultural villages, nomadic herding societies, and agricultural states in addition to industrial capitalist societies. There are qualitative differences between bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and state societies. Yet all societies have to adapt to their ecological settings and develop systems for producing and reproducing their existence across generations.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris (1977, 1979, 1988) has divided all social systems into three subsystems – the social infrastructure, structure, and superstructure. These subsystems enable human beings to reproduce their existence. To begin with, the ecological setting frames the conditions under which societies are built. Whether people find themselves in steppes, deserts, jungles, or plains affects the kind of soils, plants, and animals that are available as resources as well as the climate and topography. All these factors affect how hard people work and how well they eat. Additionally, the size of the population interacts with the ecological setting to determine whether people will migrate or stay in the same place.

Activities in the social infrastructure involve the most immediate necessities in food production – whether people will hunt, gather, fish or plant. Once all of this is established, people must discover the process of how they can work most efficiently in order to gain the most yield with the least amount of effort. To do this an elementary division of labor is established which includes designing tools, devising ways of harnessing energy, and determining the length of the workday.

Producing goods, however, is only the beginning. There must be methods of determining out who gets what, when, where and how. Thus, a primary aspect of the second dimension of a society – its structure – is its economy, or system for circulating the exchange of goods and services once they are produced. Further, the economy involves decisions about how much gets produced. In societies with rank and stratified social relations, the asymmetrical ratio of distribution is justified by status, prestige, and the ownership or non-ownership of property.

The second major department within the social structure is a society’s politics. Politics in its original sense means the “policy” governing society in two senses: projecting the future direction of the society and maintaining and regulating the existing social institutions – that is, sustaining order. The establishment of social policy is rarely a smooth process. Especially in rank and stratified societies, different subgroups within society cooperate, compete, and struggle for political power. The political and the economic systems are interrelated, and both concern the public world.

As the saying goes, “man does not live by bread alone.” People in all societies seek meaning about what they are doing. Meaning-making systems include science, art, law, and sacred systems – which, according to Harris, more often than not serve to justify in people’s minds what they are already practicing in their work. These meaning-making systems can also inspire people to look beyond the mundane necessities of working, eating, and breeding. This dimension is called the society’s superstructure and is often simply referred to as its “culture.”

For our purposes, the most important part of Harris’ description is his claim about how these three subsystems interact over time. When most of us are taught about world history we are presented with a picture that presupposes that social change proceeds from the top down, moving from the social superstructure and descending to the structure and infrastructure. This is an “idealist” presentation of history, in that it assumes the social world changes because of extraordinary ideas, knowledge systems, or morals.

Harris argues that this is wrong. Social evolution is rarely determined by people’s values and ideas – whether they be sacred or scientific. In fact, in nearly every instance social change begins with a crisis of population pressure and resource depletion. If the crisis is bad enough and the society doesn’t become fragmented (people abandoning it or joining other societies), people will by trial and error develop new technologies and economic-political systems that temporarily relieve the crisis. The superstructure is usually the most conservative dimension of society and the last to change. In Harris’s model, the social infrastructure and structure are like the arms of a galaxy whirling very quickly. The superstructure is like the galactic core, whose rate of movement is slower. Harris backs up his claim with evidence that hunting-gathering, horticultural, and agricultural societies all change from the bottom up. Harris is a materialist. I am convinced that tangible, biophysical, and technological-economic processes determine beliefs, knowledge systems, and values far more often than the reverse.

This linear description of the movement from infrastructure to structure to superstructure does not mean that the superstructure is powerless and doesn’t have any influence. It just means its influence is comparatively weak. In reality, all three dimensions are interpenetrating. But the dynamics are not equally weighted. Lastly, this description is not meant to suggest that in practice people in societies first build the infrastructure, then the structure, and finally the superstructure. All three subsystems are built co-extensively in time. But as they are building all three subsystems, each subsystem is not affecting people’s material life equally. The infrastructure and structure of society are impacting and determining people’s lives more forcefully.

What do the dimensions of human society have to do with history? History is the long-term, irreversible, and accumulating result of the production and reproduction of the three dimensions of society as they evolve from hunter-gatherers, simple and complex horticulture societies, the agricultural states, to herding, to industrial capitalist societies. Historical events do not acquire meaning unless we first know: what kind of society is it? Which social class, race or gender is being affected? At what point in history does it happen? The production and reproduction of society is the foundation of history.   

History is About Collective Human Activity, not Primarily About Events

How humans shape society: cooperation

Like all other animals, we humans must earn a living in the environment to meet our needs. Each species has a specific activity, a “species activity” unique to itself by which adaptation is accomplished (for example, building dams is the species activity of beavers). All animals work; i.e., they expend energy in a focused way over time in order to survive and reproduce. But the overwhelming majority of animals do not deliberately cooperate with other members of their own species, except in caring for their young. They complete all processes of work essentially alone. The simple biological strategy of most other animals is to graze, forage, or chase down prey in solitude.

Considered in isolation, without society or culture, and relying only on physical prowess, a human being is a mediocre competitor compared to other large-bodied mammals. Other animals can run faster, jump higher, and have greater sensory acuity. It is our social strategies that have made us the dominant large-bodied species on this planet, and these social strategies entail cooperation. It is our ability to cooperate with other human beings that gives us the edge over the rest of the animal kingdom. We cooperate by (a) pooling our resources, (b) creating a division of labor, and (c) working to a common end. Cooperation creates a social whole which is more than the sum of its parts.

Human societies emerged as an adaptive strategy of Homo sapiens to compensate for our physiological mediocrity. But society does far more than help us to survive and reproduce. Society is responsible for completing our humanization and expanding it over the course of history.  Cooperation changes human species-activity from work to labor. In laboring, we accept roles. Members of a hunting band agree beforehand that some will join together to frighten the game, while others will wait in ambush. Later, if they have been suc­cessful, they will share the kill with other members of the band who have stayed behind at the campsite. After all, having finished consuming the edible parts of their prey, those members who did not participate in the hunt are expected to engage in other roles, such as sewing the carcass and tanning the leather of the animal.

None of these roles, other than that of waiting in ambush, directly leads to biological satisfaction. In fact, the strategy of frightening the game, taken by itself, would be maladaptive: it would probably diminish the chances of a successful outcome. But as a socio-cultural strategy, frightening the game is effective because others have agreed to be waiting for the game when it falls into their trap. This cooperative strategy, and others like it, are so effective that they have enabled our species to dominate the globe.

Over time, our species has built a network of social institutions around the earth that changes, and is changed by, our biophysical environment. Society becomes akin to what Teilhard de Chardin termed a “noosphere” – a “super-organic” planetary feedback system, a “socio-sphere” nested within the biosphere. It is within this socio-sphere that history takes shape. The dynamics taking place among other animals within the biosphere over time could be called “evolution.” “History” is a unique kind of evolutionary activity that goes with the building of a socio-culture. Without a socio-culture there would be no history. With the few exceptions of those other animals that have some socio-culture, the humans are the only species on earth that produce history. History consists of socio-cultural systems changing over time.

Summing up:

Most Non-human animals                  Human beings

work                                                                labor

little or no cooperation                                  cooperation: social roles

biological evolution                                        socio-cultural evolution

evolution without history                   evolution with history

Individuals are Both the Object and Subject of History

Role-making and role typification

The heart of cooperation is the creation of a division of labor, or role-making. When groups divide up to perform complementary roles, they create an interdependency. By relying on each, the people create synergistic results. They obtain more food per capita with less risk than could any single member working alone. There is no longer a direct relationship between biological needs and biological strategies. The ends may be biological, but the means are socio-cultural.

When a hunting-and-gathering society first begins to divide up the tasks, the people need to discuss what to do: “You go over here and frighten the game; you go here and wait in ambush; you stay back at the camp and prepare for a feast.” But then, after a few practices runs, the group members no longer need to discuss who is going to do what because the roles have been internalized. Each person reciprocally typifies the process in his or her head. (Berger, 1967) The internal dialogue probably goes something like, “Aha, here he or she goes again playing that role. This is my cue to play this role.”

The internalization of laboring activities allows old roles to be mastered to the point where they become subconscious. Each person can now anticipate what the others will do. “There she goes again” becomes “there we go again.” The socialization activity initially is consciously undertaken. But once internalized cues kick in, each person engages in roles automatically. This frees up the individual’s conscious mind to deepen existing skills or learn a wider set of roles.

So the more roles we internalize, the more human we become. The more roles can be typed and then formed into social habits, which can be counted on to recur, the more the mind knows its social place in relation to what other humans are doing. In this model, history does not “begin” with writing and civilization, because this would exclude all the laboring and role-making of pre-state societies. History begins with the construction and reproduction of all human societies, starting with hunter-gatherers.

People are objects of history

People are not, however. free to build roles from scratch. Throughout our lives we are limited by the tools, institutions, and beliefs that are passed on to us from previous generations. An individual is born into a particular type of society, within a given subgroup of that society, at a particular point in history. Nothing can be done about that. And these constraints define what the person has to work with. As an adult, through one’s goals and actions one not only cooperates with others, but also competes with the goals and actions of others. That encounter is an inseparable part of social life. Furthermore, competition between people is not a democratic “free-for-all.” Since the rise of stratified states five thousand years ago, most people have little or no political or economic power at their disposal to enable them to compete with the real powerholders in society. In all these ways, people are the objects of history.

Subjective possibilities

At the same time, while individuals are in one sense subservient to forces which are much more powerful than themselves, the institutions and social tools of previous generations contain the raw materials necessary to overcome these constraints. Each person still has responsibility for what is made of his or her circumstances. Through learning language, and through learning to take on roles, we are training ourselves to become weavers, not simply yarn to be woven into what history becomes. As adults, the quality of what we bring to our work, the morals, and beliefs we hold dear, and the way we raise our children are all aspects of being a human subject.

Individuals then, are both objects and subjects of society, both products and co-producers of society. What is more, the process of being a product and co-producer is going on all the time.

Externalization, objectification, internalization

The process of being a subject and object of history has nicely been broken down by Berger (1967) to include three moments: externalization, objectification, and internalization. For example, every day a person goes to work, her labor, along with everyone else’s labor, literally produces society for another day. Every morning a person wakes up, she is “pregnant” with the power of reproducing society for another day. As people express their subjectivity and creativity on the job, society is reproduced. We are each pregnant with a little part of the birthing process of society for that day. The fact that this externalization potential stands behind both society and history can easily be seen if there is a natural disaster or a general strike. Society comes to a halt. It can only resume its normal rhythms through the concrete cooperative action of people. As long as people withhold their laboring activity, social reproduction is temporarily halted. So, on the one hand, society is a human product, and we are the producer of it.

On the other hand, both the process of creation on the job and the goods and services which result from our joint actions of role-taking produce synergetic results. The outcomes and consequences of the consumption of these goods and services by others are beyond the power of any individual to control. Our actions are objectified in the substance of what gets produced. However much we “externalized” ourselves by laboring, the outcome of what people actually do with the goods and services produced confronts these producers as something new, as both more than and less than we bargained for. Externalization is the process of making something. Objectification is the product made, along with other people’s reaction to it.

Last, there is the stage of internalization. It is here that the person digests the difference between what was intended in the process of externalizing their social being and what actually happened to the product (objectification). This internalization is an evaluation of the results in the service of future cycles, beginning with externalization. This cycle repeats itself over the course of history.

A theatrical example of externalization, objectification, internalization

Let’s take a concrete example. Suppose you are an actress and along with others in your theater company you’ve been rehearsing for a play for weeks. Every day that you go to rehearsal, you are externalizing your being as you shape the form of this social activity (putting on plays). On opening night and all the subsequent performances, your performance is objectified. It is now subject to feedback from the world—as gauged by the number of tickets sold, as well as by audience response, critical reviews, and wages. When the play is over the actors and actresses internalize the outcome. They take in and evaluate the feedback and make judgments about future plays.

When we objectify and internalize, we are a product of society. When we externalize ourselves, we are co-producers of society. History is the result of the process of externalization, objectification, and internalization of societies over time and across space around the world. In sum, externalization is the process of laboring, objectification is the outcome of the laboring, and internalization is the evaluation of laboring, or the discrepancy between externalization (what was produced) and objectification (how it was received).

All roles and work patterns are not freely constructed from scratch every day. Roles are institutionalized; and customs, habits, and coercion ensure continuity from day to day. But while there may be pre-programmed roles, the enactment of the “play” can only occur through the performance of social roles by living actresses and actors. It is the average person more than the extraordinary one who, for better or worse, makes the drama real on the stage of history.

Production of conflict and order

Finally, the collective activity of reproducing society through externalization, objectification, and internalization over time produces both conflict and order. On the one hand, humanity’s labor reproduces continuity, integration, cohesion, consensus, and predictability from generation to generation. But at the same time, humanity’s labor also produces outcomes that are novel, competitive, conflicted, and that sometimes result in crisis. In reproducing our society, we reproduce traditional institutions of constraint, while also producing possibilities for challenging those institutions.

Qualification: there is a place for extraordinary people

My emphasis on the average individual as a history-shaper does not imply there is no place for extraordinary individuals who also write the scripts of history. But these scientists, artists, and politicians are essentially mental workers who couldn’t have done their work if it weren’t for the everyday work of farmers and “blue-collar” workers who provide the food and construct the buildings, roads, and machines that directly or indirectly make this extraordinary work possible. At the same time, not only are extraordinary individuals the beneficiaries of the work of the lower classes, but the work of privileged groups impacts the average person too. The work of Marconi on the telegraph, for example, changed the communication patterns of the average person dramatically. Extraordinary people are also products and co-producers of the externalization, objectification, and internalization processes.

Summing up dimensions of society, world history and laboring

Let us review the relationship between the socio-cultural dimensions of society, world-history, and laboring. In order for people to meet their needs and desires, they have to earn a living in their environment; therefore, human beings labor. The process of laboring involves a specialization of tasks and the use of tools to devise and take on roles. This laboring process–

  • satisfies needs and desires,
  • humanizes us,
  • breathes life into macro and micro social processes—
  1. a) building and sustaining the social infrastructure, structure, and superstructure of society,
  2. b) catalyzing externalization, objectification, and internalization,
  • Spreading the “sociosphere” in space, around the planet, creating order and continuity as well as novelty and conflict,
  • extends the “sociosphere” in time, shaping a human world-history, and
  • creates unintended consequences in our biophysical environment.

Laboring is the activity that reproduces society and history. Laboring might be defined as the totality of collective human effort, both physical and intellectual, that is expended on the shaping and reshaping of socio-culture over time and across space.

Social amnesia: reification and alienation, legitimation, and ideology

In the last section we discussed role-making and role-taking as the basis of cooperative labor. Following Berger, I argued that role-making arises out of discussion, while role-taking occurs once the initial roles have been mastered: they are acted on subconsciously, becoming habits. The blessing and the curse of role-creating occur when the original roles that were improvised by adults of a given hunting-and-gathering society are transmitted to the next generation; i.e., institutionalized.

The blessing is that the next generation is spared the task of having to invent roles for the first time and work out the bugs. The curse is that since the members of the new generation did not themselves construct these roles; they lack the same active, exploratory relationship to them. The daughters and sons inherit the roles their parents constructed. But since they didn’t participate in shaping those roles, their relationship to these roles is more passive. Over generations, it becomes more difficult to imagine that these roles are malleable. They seem harder to change, or even to imagine as being different than they are. The internalized cue of the next generation might no longer be “there we go again,” but “this is how things are done.”

Rigidification of roles

Our roles humanize us, and at the same time they have the potential to make our minds and bodies passive. We become automatic humans—humanoids. As long as the individual is actively constructing her or his roles, the act of playing out those roles seems tenuous and changeable, almost playful. But once the roles are passed on to the next generation, they become institutionalized and ossified in the body and mind of the individual as well as in society.

The old role-making habits become simple role-taking habits. Roles become crystallized at the macro-level in historical institutions and are experienced as being beyond the control of the individuals who currently embody them. Institutions appear to have a life of their own and confront the individual as external and coercive things about which nothing can be done. Still, no matter how difficult it may be to imagine, we have far more freedom to shape and change these roles collectively than we usually think, granting that some social circumstances are more difficult to change than others.


The process of conceptualizing a social institution as a “thing” divorced from cooperative labor is called reification. The transformation of role-playing from an experience of “here we go again” to one of “this is how things are done” as an example of reification. Suppose I am at work and someone new on the job challenges the role I am playing in order to get a particular project done. If I rigidly say, “this is how things are done,” without considering that this particular situation might be unique, I am reifying the social situation. First, I am renouncing my capacity to change the role I am in. Second, I am giving up or projecting my own power to change roles by allowing myself to be enslaved to customs developed by previous workers. Third, these customs appear to me to be out of our control and have a life of their own. “Who am I to change these customs? This is the way things have always been done.” Finally, the customs are not conceived of as having both good and bad qualities that are evolving. Rather, they are understood as static—as all good; or, if we happen to be rebelling against them, as all bad.

Let me define reification more robustly. Reification is a psychological process by which individuals turn social processes and products into things. Social processes and products include roles, language, and institutions. Reification is a kind of amnesia in which humans forget that we are the agents and ends of all social activities. Roles, language, and institutions are means to our ends, not ends in themselves. Reification turns means into ends. From the example above, in its full-blown form, reification can be broken down into four moments:

  • a renunciation of ourselves as the agents or subjects of our creations;
  • a projection of our power out of ourselves onto our creations;
  • a rigidification of our creations into a status which appears beyond our control;  and,
  • a characterization of our creations as having either all good or all bad qualities.

While reification is a collective illusion, in another sense it is real. On one hand, it presents social reality in a false form. In fact, human collective creativity (labor) stands behind all social processes and products. Reifications are illusions about how society is actually built and sustained over time. But on the other hand, when people act as if society were actually a thing standing above individuals, it gives society a certain kind of reality because people’s actions support that illusion. In other words, when people are mobilized around what we may think is an illusion, the illusion becomes real in the sense that we have to deal with all of the problems that real people add to a situation through actions based on their beliefs.

But is the tendency to reify society the only problem which stands in the way of people becoming more active as social shapers? If people didn’t have all of these collective psychological illusions, would we be free to create any type of society and history we wished?

The difficulty with this formulation is that it makes the problem of why societies tend to resist change only a question of social-psychological forgetfulness, or some sort of collective memory problem. This ignores the economic and political constraints that are real obstacles in changing society.


Another reason, as Marx and Engels pointed out over 170 years ago, is that people become “alienated”—that is, they lose control over the infrastructure, structure, and superstructure of society. With the rise of agricultural states, societies became stratified, with elites using force and coercion (the threat of force) of the state to mobilize alienated castes to labor in all three dimensions of society while extracting a huge surplus of goods and services for themselves. Because they had the backing of a military, they could force the majority to work longer and harder against their will and despite their resistance. Besides surrendering goods and services, the alienated castes paid rent and taxes on land, and had to be available to fight wars and work on state projects. Bertell Ollman defined alienation as loss of control by workers over the process or production; the products of production; the relations between people on the job and relations to themselves.

It is important to keep in mind that alienation is a political and economic process of losing control over our collective-creative species activity—labor. In contrast, reification is a psychological process which can occur in any society, including those that are egalitarian. When people are alienated, they are still shaping history, but they are sleepwalking through it.


But alienation cannot be achieved by state force or coercion alone. Social institutions must be built which justify and support force or coercive power so that the need for armed force is not always immediately present. Legitimation is the set of superstructural institutions and processes used by those in power to induce those in submissive positions to comprehend their submission as being (a) necessary (rather than questionable); (b) socially beneficial to all, including themselves (rather than exploitive); (c) as part of a cosmic order (as opposed to a social arrangement); (d) as inevitable (rather than changeable); and (e) as eternal (rather than historical).


I use the term “Ideology” to mean an integrated system of political and economic ideas that emerges in stratified societies among competing castes or classes to explain and justify each’s struggle for power. Ideology overlaps all meaning-making systems in the superstructure but is not identical with them. For instance, art in a given society can either support the status quo or undermine it. Sacred beliefs can justify the rulership of a king, or they can—through the efforts of a cult or sect—threaten the power of the elite. Ideologies have at least six dimensions: they provide knowledge and beliefs about the past, present and future political and economic world; they appeal to emotions; they provide norms and values; they promote goals and plans; they are enacted in rituals; and they have a social base among various sectors of the population.

Ideology limits the ability of any caste or class to see the world with any absolute objectivity. Thus, the way any given group sees the world cannot be completely separated from the political and economic struggles between various stratified groups.

While ideology is a body of ideas, legitimation requires material processes and institutions by which ruling-class ideology is transmitted. Certainly, the lower classes can house ideologies of resistance in their own counter-institutions, but this would not be a legitimizing process, but a “counter-legitimation.”

Social conscious and social unconscious

With state coercion and legitimation in place, most alienated people retreat from public life and from technological, economic, and political decision-making processes. Most people in stratified societies are aware of having needs and desires, possessing a skill, receiving a wage, satisfying a need, raising a family, and believing in deities. In order to satisfy their needs, people are aware that they need to go to work. But most are only dimly aware that their labor has collective, macro-social consequences which go far beyond their personal and domestic agenda.

In the process of working, we also reproduce the institutions of our society, indirectly partici­pate in the reproduction of other societies around the world, and impact our biophysical ecology. And doing this day after day, we are shaping society and history.

People are conscious of:

  • needs/desires
  • biological reproduction (raising a family)
  • choice of labor (this is not very relevant in ancient rank and stratified societies)
  • playing roles as given
  • wages or salaries received
  • satisfaction/dissatisfaction with needs
  • identification with superstructural sacred traditions,

while the following are relegated to the realm of “social amnesia”:

  • the fact that roles are changeable
  • the reification of society
  • alienation from society
  • inadvertent reproduction of local social institutions (externalization, objectification, internalization)
  • reproduction of international societies (through trade)
  • social impact on biophysical ecology

Example of alienation

Suppose I get a cup of coffee from a vending machine on my morning break. That cup of coffee I’m drinking has the labor of thousands of people contained in it—including people on the coffee and sugar plantations, and all the workers who ship and deliver the coffee to our country. That is collective-creative activity. They are shaping world history by their labor. But how can that work be creative? Those people on the sugar and coffee plantations don’t sit down with other people and coordinate their efforts. They just do what they are told. As for creativity, harvesting sugar cane is hardly creative. Furthermore, those people usually don’t give a damn about the rest of the workers who are responsible for getting the coffee to the U.S., nor do they care about who is going to drink it, or the quality of the coffee itself.

What most workers care about is not getting in trouble, not losing their job, increasing their wages, and bettering their working conditions. Whatever creativ­ity they express relates either to finding ways to fuck off on the job or to picking faster (if they are paid piecemeal). Real creativity is expressed negatively in avoiding the requirements on the job; it is expressed positively when they get off work. As Marx said, the majority of human beings feel most human when they are not working and more like animals when they are working.

Of course, the cooperation and creativity of workers on coffee and sugar plantations is limited in scope, given that we live in a stratified society, and they are working-class and have to take orders. Other members of the society—artists, writers, musicians, and architects, for example—are able to exercise much more creativity; while still others—such as entrepreneurs and athletes—tend to be much more competitive than factory or agricultural workers are. But even if all of the people in the system as a whole were competing with each other or being creative to the same degree, the social process instituted by the human species taken as a whole would still have to be considered essentially cooperative and creative. The very fact that a species can harness the fertility of the soil to meet its needs is a major achievement which distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We coordinate our efforts through occupational special­ization, and the product can ultimately be transported across oceans. That’s an enormous feat, and we would be shortsighted to take it for granted.


People don’t intentionally act to produce society, nevertheless their actions produce it, behind their backs, as it were. All those humans intentionally do is merely try to satisfy needs and desires. But in order to do this, they have to work at a specific job, receive a wage or a salary, and thereby satisfy their needs. However, in the process, people produce more than they realize. They inherit the tools, institutions, and belief systems of previous generations, which they inadvertently reproduce in the process of satisfying their needs. Whatever the individual’s immediate personal or family needs, his or her work responsibilities demand that more goods and services be produced than are necessary for private consumption. In order for the individual members of the society to get their needs and desires satisfied, a super-personal system of production, decision-making, circulation, and distribution must be set up, maintained, and in some cases, transformed.

As people become more politically and economically alienated, they become less and less aware of macro-social processes, which become more or less unconscious and over which they have diminishing control. In spite of their alienation, and in spite of the fact that individuals and families are to a large degree “out for themselves,” they nevertheless inadvertently reproduce larger systems and processes—they feed people they will never know, reproduce social institutions they have no power to control, and impact the biophysical environment in ways they do not understand. Part of their activity is conscious, but a much larger part is unconscious. I call the inability to grasp the full implications of cooperative labor, either because of reification or alienation, “social amnesia.”

Until now there has never been a time when human beings as a species have intentionally remade these institutions with the intention of changing history. In order for history to become a conscious process, people would have to overturn and restructure the stratification system, which would allow us collectively to take hold of that system. Then it would be possible to design our future, not just improvise it. We would become conscious history-makers, not just unconscious history-shapers.

The process of history shaping involves three participating dimensions—the individual, society, and the biophysical environment. In the process of trying to satisfy our individual needs, we must engage in mediated social relations. In working together to satisfy needs, we use up natural resources and change the ecological niche we inhabit. As a result, socio-cultural systems accumulate wear-and-tear and undergo periodic crisis. People must decide on new ways of engaging this environment and have to build new forms of social organization to better adapt to these biophysical changes. If successful, they produce new means by which to satisfy individual needs. Individuals then develop new needs, and this results in changed social systems and changed ecological conditions. Changes in both these larger systems in turn provide new vehicles by which old individual needs may be gratified and new needs stimulated or discovered. All of this occurs despite reification and alienation.

History-shaping can be defined as the necessary, recurrent, irreversible, and accumulating process of the collective laboring of the entire human species in the past, present, and future. The table at the end shows the differences between mainstream ideas of history and a process-oriented history of council communism, a type of Marxian theory.

Conclusion: So What’s Next?

So where does an individual who doesn’t give a hoot about history or voting do with all this information? Right now, in Yankeedom, not much. In order to mobilize this cynic we would need a mass socialist political party with clear long-term goals and a transition program of every 3 to 5 years (I’m not talking about Trotsky transition program). The party must have roots in the labor movement (like Labor Notes) and connected to worker cooperatives. It needs socialist political theoreticians and political economists like Michael Hudson, Richard Wolff, Michael Roberts, and Anwar Shaikh. This party does not intend to win elections. Its purpose is to connect, broaden and deepen working class struggles and work these struggles as part of a plan. This was Marx’s vision for a communist party which he wrote about 170 years ago.


Council Communist View Categories of Comparison Mainstream Yankee View
About the past, present and future Temporal dimension About the past
Begins with the upper-Paleolithic hunter-gatherers When does it begin? With writing, in states and cities of the Bronze Age
Primarily mundane events:

working and breeding

What historical events matter? Extraordinary events: wars, congresses, inventions


Primarily made by average women and men laboring Who makes historical events? Made by extraordinary men: kings, generals, politicians


Labor is much larger than a social class.

It is human species activity Labor is the collective human activity which makes society and history possible

What is the place of labor? Labor is about a particular social class (the working class) that has little to do with history
It is inseparable from class, race, and gender struggles What is the place of objectivity? Already given

Universal and impartial

A process of interconnected, evolving events


Relationship between events Discrete unconnected events unless a war or congress
Human societies are the basic units of history Relationship between history and society Different types of human society are rarely considered in explaining historical events
Materialist: population pressure and resource depletion, produce crisis

Technological, economic, political adaptation

Ultimate causes of change Idealist

Extraordinary ideas, beliefs and values

External locus of control:

Improvised by the majority due to reification and alienation


Locus of control in the past Inevitably out of control of the majority

Not smart enough to take control of history


During revolutionary situations working-class people improvise a new society

In council communist society history can be designed

Locus of control in the future? External locus of control Inevitability out of control of the majority

Improvising collective action by workers to keep things from getting worse Human motivation The free will of heroic individuals middle and upper-class individuals
Structured but not pre-determined, irreversible, and accumulating, with periodic crisis Constraint-agency The will-power of competing elites
Workers are both the product and co-producer of history Who produces history? Extraordinary individuals
Improvised evolution Meaning of history Progress

First published in Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post Why Study History? Why it Matters to the Yankee Population Who don’t Bother to Vote first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Building Bridges from Pierre Janet to Lev Vygotsky: Transitions to Communist Psychology


In his time, the late 19th to mid-20th century, Pierre Janet was considered a great psychologist and rival to Freud. But in Yankeedom he is barely known today. I bring him up in this article, not only because his ideas are worthy of being known, but because in many ways his was a precursor to the work of the communist psychology built by Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Leontiev, and Alexander Luria. In the early part of this article, Janet’s ideas are favorably compared to Freud in the importance of conflict; the origin of neurosis; the ways in which patients are trapped; how centralized the personality is; therapeutic techniques; the place of transference; the ideal patient; and adherence to the scientific method. In the middle section of the article Janet’s theory of three levels of personality are discussed.

Psychologists have spent many years dissecting different spectrum of the mind. These include all aspects from sensations to perceptions to thinking, to analyzing, comparing and contrasting, evaluating, deciding and planning. But what about what people do? After all, psychology is not just what is in the mind or heart. Psychology also studies gestures, postures and movement. Part of this article distinguishes reflexes from behavior, actions, habits, conduct and practical-critical activity. In the last third of the article, these different forms of doing are compared. I close with the similarities and differences between Janet and Vygotsky and socio-historical psychology. As resources for this article, I used Henri Ellenberger’s large tome, The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry which has a long Chapter on Janet. The second resource is Jaan Valsiner’s and Rene van der Veer’s book The Social Mind. Valsiner is also the author of a large biography of Vygotsky. Lastly I shall reference B.R. Hergenhahn’s book An Introduction to the History of Psychology, which I used for many years while teaching the subject.

Family background

Pierre Janet was a medical doctor born in 1859 who died in 1947. His early years of psychological work overlapped with the great hypnosis period of Jean-Martin Charcot and the The Nancy school. Janet was a consummate Parisian. He was born and died in Paris. He came from an upper middle-class family who produced many scholars, lawyers and engineers. His father became a bookseller, specializing in music while his mother was very religious. Pierre was the oldest son of a young mother who was 21 at time of his birth, while his father was 45. His parents were very distant and the only relative who showed interest in Pierre was his uncle, Paul.  Paul wrote books on philosophy which were classics in France for two or three generations. He also wrote many studies on the history of philosophy. Paul’s son wrote studies on philosophy of science and on the psychology of scientific discoveries. Pierre’s mother died in 1885 well before Janet became famous. He wanted to do psychopathological research and decided to take up medical studies. Janet began his medical studies in 1889 and completed them in 1893. He worked in Charcot’s wards. Charcot died in 1893. In 1894 Janet published a book on philosophy he had been working on for 12 years. He was married in 1894. Janet wrote two books on neurosis: Character and Neurosis: An Integrative View and Obsessions and Psychasthenia.

Intellectual influences

Janet was deep into French intellectual life, and he crossed paths with Maurice Blondel, the sociologist Emile Durkheim; the socialist Jean Jaures, and the psychologist Alfred Binet. Janet was very intellectually ambitious. In his Latin dissertation, Janet chose Francis Bacon and the alchemists as topics and thought he was in a similar situation as Bacon. He wanted to found a new experimental psychology based on synthesizing science and magic. He became life-long friends with process philosopher Henri Bergson who was very interested in memory for his arguments about creative evolution. Late in his book Matter and Memory, Bergson refers to Janet’s research on dissociation of personality, hypnosis and suggestion.  They shared an interest in Charcot’s work. Janet also studied the work of Proust and Valery on memory. Over the years, he built a vast and comprehensive system in which almost every possible aspect of psychology found its place. He kept a card catalogue of his books. Late in life he became friends with the author James Baldwin.  Further In his quest to understand the unconscious mind, Janet became interested in graphology and narcoanalysis as a way to link hypnosis to chemical substances. Lastly, he explored electric shock therapy for curing depression. He kept an extensive herb garden in which he collected and classified herbs. He enjoyed hiking and botanizing in the Fontainebleau woods.

He was not only a scholar but a very skillful clinician and psychotherapist, and an admirable lecturer. As a teacher he tried to follow the Socratic Method. He believed there would come a time when a man could travel through the past in the same way as he now travels through air. He would have nothing to do with journalists and granted no interviews.

Freud vs Janet: Similarities and Differences

Both Freud and Janet were medical doctors and they were interested in the same kinds of neurotics, namely obsessives and hysterics. Both were interested in the importance of traumatic events in the shaping of personality and they both valued working with hypnosis to get to the trauma.  Both were interested in patients who were “stuck” (fixation) and they both thought fixation kept people from living in the present. They both also believed that fixation haunted the patient’s future. For Janet, fixed ideas narrowed consciousness in the present which kept the person from completely functioning in the here-and-now at work. They both dismissed parapsychology and religion. Janet thought that therapy would eventually replace religion.

However, they differed in important ways. First, here is a summary of Janet’s psychological analysis.

  • The discovery of subconscious fixed ideas is caused by a traumatic or frightening event that has been replaced by symptoms. This narrows the field of consciousness.
  • Hysterical crisis are disguised reenactments of fixed idea.
  • Fixed ideas are subconscious characteristic, a feature of hysteria vs obsessive neurosis, and were unconscious.
  • Obsessions and phobias were conscious.

For Freud neurosis came about because of repressed sexuality, and as the patient being arrested at the phallic stage of development in either the Oedipus or Electra complex. Janet thought Freud’s ideas about sexuality were “over the top”.  Janet thought the foundation for neurosis was the inability to do creative work in a consistent, expanding manner which he called “conduct”. There were two types of neurosis:

  • Asthenias syndrome – insufficiency of psychological force; and,
  • Hypotonic syndrome – insufficiently of psychological tension.

These will be discussed later.

Both agreed on the importance of conflict psychologically, but the location was different. For Freud the conflict was driven by the clash between the id and the superego.  For Janet, there was conflict between psychological force and tension. Their techniques were different. Freud interpreted dreams and used free association techniques to get at the unconscious.  Janet, anticipating the surrealists, used automatic writing as an active role play to get at unconscious drives. Though Freud did not think much of the ego compared to the id and the superego, he still saw the ego as a centralizing and coordinating force in the structure of the psyche. Janet thought neurotics had no centralizing force. Like Gurdjieff, Janet thought his patients did not already have an I. They had to make one. Janet claimed priority over Freud in having discovered a cathartic cure for neurosis brought forth by the clarification of traumatic origins.

They were on opposite sides of the fence when it came to the relationship between patient and therapist. Freud wanted to cultivate transference and this meant encouraging dependency in his patients. Janet discouraged dependency and expected his patients to internalize their conversations and to become autonomous, the sooner the better.  For Janet it was very bad for someone to be overly dependent. This craving to be hypnotized and need to confess to the psychiatrist had to be gradually stopped. Janet’s method was to phase the sessions out.

Further, the settings and the classes they worked with were different. Janet worked in public hospitals with working-class and poor people. Freud had a private practice with upper-class people. Lastly, their ideal types were different. The motto of Freud’s genital character was “love and work are the well-springs of life”. For Janet, rational-ergastic work was the goal which Janet claimed was scientific practice. The table below summarizes their differences.

Janet vs Freud Compared


Medical Doctor

Category of comparison Freud

Medical Doctor

Yes – psychological force vs tension Importance of conflict Yes – id vs super ego
Lack of activity practice in work

·      Asthenias syndrome -insufficiency of psychological force

·      Hypotonic syndrome –

insufficiently of psychological tension

Origin of neurosis Repressed sexuality


Oedipal complex

Electra complex

Fixed ideas narrowed consciousness in the present now In what way are patients stuck? Fixations haunted people at different stages of development
No centralized I

(The same as George Gurdjieff)

How centralized is the personality? Ego was relatively centralized vs id and superego
Automatic writing

Active role play

Therapeutic techniques Dream interpretation

Free association

Discouraged dependency Place or misplace of transference Encouraged dependency
Rational Ergastic work: scientific practice Ideal Genital character

“Love and work are the well-spring of life.”

Worked in hospitals

with working class

Setting and social class of patients Worked privately with the upper classes
Experimental Scientific follow-up Speculative

Janet’s ideal state

The highest manifestation of humanity for Janet, like Vygotsky and Marxists, is the ability to act upon external objects and change reality in the service of adaptation and to introduce an increase of order (today called negentropy). This includes an ability to completely focus on the here-and-now at work.  Janet called this “conduct”. For Janet, the individual is capable of controlling both force and tension in his conduct. This opposes the natural tendency of the mind to roam through the past and the future rather than staying present when working.

Levels within Psychology

Janet divided the human being into three levels.

Lower tendencies

Lower tendencies include reactive tendencies like expressive, explosive acts. Without psychological regulation, these are tendencies which are like instincts or reflexes. Still within the lower level there are perceptive tendencies which aim at modifying something in the exterior world through waiting and searching rather than taking the initiative. Habitual actions are also included.

The second layer within the lower level are imagination, representative memory, fantasy and daydreaming. There are two inferior levels: emotional reactions and useless muscular movements. Lastly, at the highest of the lowest level are the socio-personal tendencies in which there is differentiation between conduct directed at others and the conduct directed at one’s own body. Examples of this are imitation, collaboration, command and obey, learning and playing roles, hiding and showing, play, sex, and ceremonies.  Social emotions at this level include effort, fatigue, sadness, joy, and delusions of persecution

Middle tendencies

Middle tendencies include elementary intellectual tendencies These include verbal language, symbolic thought, production, and explanation. Human actions began to be dissociated from bodily contact.  Results from discussion among individuals and other social members include doubt, deliberation, and decision.

Highest tendencies

Higher tendencies are labeled by Janet as rational–ergetic tendencies or conduct.

This is the tendency of focused work. This means the capacity to stick things out even if it derives no initial satisfaction.Virtues include voluntary action (rather than being told what to do) initiative, perseverance and patience. It includes the capacity to endure waiting and using the rules of logic. The person at this level is capable of experimenting when a system is criticized according to its practical result.

Then Janet says something very interesting. He says the search for individuality extends into time (history) and space (around the world.) By this he means that conduct at this level involves being concerned about how his work is part of history and interacts with other cultures around the world. A person at this level has confidence in the concept of progress.

Exploration of Neurosis

For Janet neurotics were for various reasons stuck at levels one or two and were not capable of conduct.  For Janet, a good experimental approach consists in knowing one’s patient well—in his life, schooling, characters and his ideas—and to be convinced that one never known him enough. Psychological energy consists of force and tension. Psychological force is the quantity of elementary psychic energy available to accomplish numerous prolonged and rapid acts. They are both intended and manifest. Psychological tension is the capacity to utilize his energy at a high level in the hierarchy of tendencies of coordination and any creative and scientific act.  Janet did not believe the supersession of neurosis involved an absence of tension. Tension can be good depending on the right kind. The greater the number of psychological operations synthesized, the more novel the synthesis. The more novel the synthesis, the higher the psychological tension.

When dealing with a neurotic, the first concern is to evaluate psychological force and psychological tension involved. There are two syndrome that can result from this evaluation.

Asthenia syndrome— is where there is an insufficiency of psychological force

In a mild version of this syndrome, patients are dissatisfied with themselves. They are unable fully to enjoy happiness or pleasure and they become easily anxious or depressed. An intermediate stage is a kind of withdrawal. It is not so much that they are dissatisfied with themselves, per se, but there is an unhappiness with people. There is a feeling of a void, where they do not like people and do not feel liked by others, The most severe form of the asthenia syndrome. This syndrome is where someone is unable to work at a steady occupation. For Janet, like Marxists, meaningful work is the most important thing in life.

Hypotonic syndrome – is where there is insufficiency of psychological tension for managing higher level functions.

Primary symptoms are the incapacity to performs acts of psychological synthesis. This means the lower, middle and higher functions are not coordinated. Secondary symptoms are a waste of nervous energy that cannot be utilized at the desired level. For example, distracting oneself on the job on the internet or with mindless chattering with others. What also goes with this are feelings of inadequacy which come from working at a job below their qualifications.

The treatment of asthenia syndrome: managing the psychic economy

Janet’s suggestions for treatment of the first syndrome was to

  • Increase in energy. These involve some very practical suggestions about regulating energy. Teaching patients the best way to prepare for sleep; structuring the distribution of breaks throughout the work day, and taking vacations during the year. Secondly having a qualitative diet, including vitamins.
  • Diminishing expenditures. Janet emphasized getting rid of what he called “energy leeches”, people who drain energy with their problems and not contribute anything. Janet said that people are very bad at terminating relationships, even when they are counterproductive.
  • Liquidating debts – Janet had a very strange term for this, but what he meant was getting rid of fixed ideas or traumatic reminiscences.

All these interventions are involved in helping patients get to level three to be able to conduct rational-ergetic tendencies.

Treatment of hypotonic syndrome

Derivations meant channeling agitations by transferring them into useful or tolerable activities to increase and heighten psychological tension. Janet looked down on drugs, travels, and love affairs because they are temporary and uneconomical. Lastly, there is training in performing a complete and achieved action and build-up to those steps.

On the whole, when therapy went well it was a therapeutic revolution. The reason for this is because it demonstrates how a healthy relationship to the therapist can be a model for the patient’s relationship with others. In an optimal sense the patient would be able to use the modeling of their relationship with the therapist to build a new community based on what has been learned. Most importantly, the therapeutic relationship should be able to promote conduct at the highest level, preforming work that is rational-ergastic.

From Janet’s Conduct to Vygotsky’s Practical-Critical Activity

In order to understand how Janet’s concept of “conduct” is a bridge to Vygotsky’s “practical critical activity,” we must start by defining a whole spectrum of human “doings” or “ways”. I begin with reflexes at the simplest part of the spectrum on the left, moving toward practical critical activity as the most complex level on the right.


Reflexes are innate instincts that happen very quickly and are a product of biological evolution. All animals have reflexes, and no mental life is necessary to have them. Neither do you have to be conscious for reflexes to happen. Examples include sweating, pulling away from a fire, or knees reacting to the tapping of doctor’s hammer. Reflexes stay more or less the same during the lifespan but they become less sharp with age. Human beings have little control over reflexes. They are a normal part of everyday life. They are in place because they help us to survive since biological beings’ reflexes do not require any theory coming from an individual experiencing them. Reflexes are biological doings which are innate, automatic, and part of nature’s formula for success as a biological species.


Behavior is different from instincts because it is based on learning and occurs among virtually all mammals. Like reflexes, no mental life is necessary. Behavior can change simply because of associations happening before the behavior (Pavlov) or consequences after the behavior (Skinner). Consequences can be reinforcers (positive and negative) and punishers (positive and negative). You don’t have to be conscious of your behavior in order to have it. For example, a male who is violent with his partner and children might not know what his behavior will be right before he becomes violent. However, his “warning signs” are known by his wife and children because it is in their interests for survival to recognize it. Behaviors are not as fast as reflexes because learning takes time before the behavior becomes automatic through associations and consequences.  Examples of behavior include most postures, gestures and voice inflections that are molded without any conscious or mindful intention.

Behaviors can change over time, or they can become habits, as we shall see. Unlike reflexes, behavior can be changed if feedback is received. Like reflexes, behavior permeates the everyday life of virtually all mammals, but unlike reflexes, behaviors can be maladaptive. Like reflexes, behavior requires no theoretical activity on the part of an individual member of a species. it is important to keep in mind that what is automatic and occurs below the level of consciousness is not necessarily biological. It seems natural because it happens quickly. But there was a time when it did not happen quickly, but we weren’t paying attention. An example is driving a stick shift. There was a time when you had to think about what you were doing, and your behaviors were awkward. But then your body “got it” and you performed it well and quickly. It seems like a reflex. Behaviors are doings which are learned, occur below the level of consciousness. They can be individual or social, given the level of complexity of the organism.


Unlike either reflexes or behavior, actions require the participation of the mind and being conscious of what the individual is doing. Actions are limited to primates and are especially prominent in human beings. Actions are the result of the intentions of the mind carried out in space and over time. Actions occur more slowly and are more deliberate because, at least in humans, they require setting goals, making plans, and making lists before carrying them out. Unlike reflexes and behaviors, actions may have a direction which persists over time and is less subject to interruptions. Actions are part of everyday life, but they are often crowded out by reflexes and actions. A standard to measure actions are individual evaluations of past problems along with actions designed to reduce stress. Actions are doings which are learned, can be cultural and involve the mind’s intervention in solving problems and changing one’s direction constructively.


Like actions, habits can be either individual or cultural experiences, but their focus is mostly on primates and especially human beings.  The mind is involved some of the time and sometimes not, as habits can be formed consciously or they can be acquired unconsciously. Bad habits are usually unconsciously formed but it takes the mind to develop a plan in order to form new habits. Sometimes consciousness is necessary, and with bad habits it occurs unconsciously. Habits are learned slowly at first but can be sped up and dropped into the unconscious. A way to think about this is at its best, habits are behaviors that have stood the test of time, by first making them actions.

Examples of bad habits are drinking too much alcohol, drug abuse, smoking, or eating junk food. Good habits are painting four hours a day every Tuesday and Thursdays from 6pm to 10pm. Another good habit can be writing four days a week from 5am to 7am every Wednesday or Friday. Habits are actions that have thickened and have a more committed direction. Other primates are likely to have unconscious habits but not conscious ones. Habits can be controlled and strengthened with negative feedback as the system is held in equilibrium. Or habits can result in positive feedback where bad habits are amplified and can drop from the socio-cultural level to a biological level, such as alcohol or drug addiction. The standards to be measured are the past of an individual and relationship to present circumstances and future goals (actions). There is no theoretical activity required for habits. What makes good habits unique is that unlike behaviors, they can be repeated over time when steered by a particular goal that comes from action.


This is what Janet was most interested in cultivating in his work with patients. For him it was the indicator of a most evolved human being. Conduct is drawn from social-cultural sources, particularly scientific practice. Individual learning is involved but that learning is disciplined by the rules, procedures and methods of science. It is unique to humans and both mind and consciousness are necessary. Conduct is a thick, very slow process that takes years of formal training that is required to be a doctor, lawyer, architect, teacher, engineer, or musician. Conduct requires the highest degree of control, not just for the individual but for the entire professional community. The standards to be measured include socially established standards of excellence which are collectively analyzed, criticized, and improved upon at conferences, in journals, or in the case of musicians, through cooperation, competition and critical audience response.

Unlike any other form of doing, in conduct theory it is necessary to inform conduct. Conduct improves theory, and theory then improves conduct by taking it to a higher level. Conduct is not a habit because it is not thickened by an individual’s goals, which come out of action, but instead out of the goals of a scientific field.  Conduct which is part of a social-cooperative institution has historical traditions with standards which are emulated and improved. The individual “conductor” is both the product of that professional community and a co-producer of it.

From Conduct to Practical Critical Activity

Similarities between Janet and Vygotsky

Vygotsky and Janet were similar in important ways. Both were against the reductionism of behaviorism – there was more to human beings than stimulus-response. Both thought that the study of consciousness was important for its role in mediating the relationship between reactions to the environment and the behaviors that followed. They were both sympathetic to Gestalt theories of perception as wholes rather than bits or atomistic information. Yet they were critical of the passive sense of the environment that Gestalt’s perceptions emerged from. Both Janet and Vygotsky were also critical of subjectivist psychology such as psychoanalysis because they ignored the place of doings that we have discussed.

At the same time, both Janet and Vygotsky were against biological reductionism. They would oppose theories of temperament which argued that people are born with a certain personality. Rather they would say that personality is the result of temperament and socialization. In the process of being socialized, individual experiences accumulate resulting in a personality which is more than temperament. Both Janet and Vygotsky were against overspecialization within a field at least in part because they were well-rounded as intellectuals. Both were interested in theatre, painting, and poetry, and these made their theoretical insights into psychology richer.

Furthermore, both Janet and Vygotsky were committed to sociogenesis. For each, the origin of all psychological functions begins not inside the individual, but in cooperation between people. Only later do these socio-historical experiences become internalized. These internalization processes become social again when the individual goes back into the world to work. Lastly, both psychologists thought that meaningful work was central to psychological health. Each felt that human beings were at their best when they were working. For Janet it was rational-ergetic conduct, while for Vygotsky it was practical-critical activity.

Differences between Janet and Vygotsky

Scale of sociogenesis

A major difference between Janet and Vygotsky has to do with the scale at which conduct and practical-critical activity took place. For Janet what was social was pretty much at a micro-social interaction. For him, sociogenesis was between the individual and their families, teachers, and therapists. The closest Janet came to a larger scale sociogenesis was when he referred to the scientific community. For him, conduct expresses itself in two settings:

  • In the therapist’s relationship with his patient.
  • In the psychologist’s relationship with the scientific community.

In both cases the psychologist has a theory, and the theory is turned into conduct in therapeutic interventions and at scientific conferences. As a result of this conduct the theory is improved so that the next round is improved because the theory has improved.

In the case of Vygotsky (please see my two articles What Is Socialist Psychology Parts I and II for more in-depth coverage.) Practical critical activity does not take place between an individual and a community. Rather, practical critical activity is a collective political practice in which communities intervene politically to change a society. For example, a socialist community has a theoretical commitment to run candidates from their party in the next election. Some want to do this while others say it is a waste of time, and that their practice should be focused on organizing workers. They go ahead with the campaign. The campaign results in a certain number of votes. That was their practice. The practice then turns into a more refined theory based on how they made sense of the results. The new theory then engaged in a deeper, hopefully more advanced practice. In other words, there is a dialectical spiraling interaction between theory and practice. Janet would not disagree with the process but the process would be taking place at a collective and political level.

Social class

Janet worked in public hospitals with working-class and poor people. But as far as I know, he never incorporated class differences into his theory of conduct. On the one hand, his references to conduct were to professional activities. However, a lot of his interventions were with classes well-below those professions. What would make sense is that it was more likely the poor and working-class people would have trouble with lower levels, such as adequate sleep, good food and exercise. At the middle level working-class people might have difficulty fending off “energy leeches”, such as their families or counterproductive friendships. Working-class people might well have problems concentrating, since their work was often miserable and they are less likely to have mind-body integration where they were totally focused on the present, as in conduct. Vygotsky, like Janet, also worked with poor and working-class people, and as a communist I suspect he would be more likely to integrate social class into his practical-critical activity, but I am not aware that Vygotsky did this explicitly.

Human history

Janet’s sociogenesis not only operated at a micro level, but his incorporation of history into his theory of conduct was only vaguely developed, if at all. It is reasonable to think he had an appreciation that his interventions were not limited to immediate social interaction, but that these interactions accumulated and became a thickening historical collective conduct embodied in the practice of psychology as a professional field. Janet was well aware that his conduct interventions were part of a history that was developing between Charcot, the Nancy School, Freud and himself. He did have a sense that this accumulation of knowledge of the scientific community led to progress historically, as well as progress between Europe and the United States.

Vygotsky was extremely conscious of his theory as rooted in history. He was also conscious that his work with Leontiev and Luria was attempting to create a communist psychology. He knew his practices were political and he struggled to overcome whatever anti-communism he faced when he journeyed to psychology conferences. He had a deep sense that what he was co-creating was new. He wanted to create a Das Kapital for the field of psychology.

Practical, Critical Activity Defined

Like Janet’s conduct, practical critical activity is unique to the human species. No other animal does this. But unlike Janet’s conduct, practical-critical activity is not primarily about individual learning, but rather a socio-cultural relationship between socialist political theory intervening in industrial capitalist society. Likewise, the reflective moment of mind is not an individual mind but the superstructure of knowledge of society (science, art, math, philosophy) from which theory is drawn. Being collectively conscious is essential to practical critical activity. The speed at which the theory – practice-theory takes place is slower than conduct because more people are involved, and the interventions take place at a larger scale. The direction of practical-critical activity is a spiral – either improving the world or making the world worse because of the existence of wars, economic crises, or fascism. Practical critical activity is not a normal part of everyday life – with the exception of revolutions. Days and weeks can elapse between rounds of theory – practice – theory. The standards by which practical critical activity is judged is optimally that the self-organization of the working class is improved. What happens is that new technologies are invented which shrink the ratio between necessary labor and freedom, so the human species creates more and more negentropy with less and less collective labor. This practice is critical, reflective and, at its best, resists habits not becoming old and conformist because the social-historical world is constantly changing.

In sum, practical-critical activity is a uniquely human socio-historical activity. It is the structured, recursive, and meaningful political process executed by human beings. We intervene in the infrastructure, structure, and superstructure of society for the purpose of promoting socialism. We do this by drawing from the accumulated wisdom of past super-structural knowledge to reflect, analyze, compare, and contrast, evaluate, and plan our next intervention. Optimally, this takes the shape of a spiral, with higher and higher interventions which are more depthful, fuller of breadth, and expansive.


The purpose of this article is fourfold. The first is to introduce the neglected work of one of the great psychologists of the late 19th and mid 20th century, Pierre Janet. I do this by contrasting him favorably to Freud. Secondly, I present his theory of three levels of human functioning. Thirdly, I present a neglected subject of psychology, the field of “doings”. I contrast five ways of doing: reflexes, behavior, actions, habits, and Janet’s category which he called “conduct”. Fourthly, I close the article by contrasting the similarities and differences between Janet and Vygotsky. One of the main differences between them is that Vygotsky’s theory allows for a sixth way of doing: practical-critical activity. The last part of my article shows the ways practical-critical activity is different from Janet’s conduct.

• First published in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post Building Bridges from Pierre Janet to Lev Vygotsky: Transitions to Communist Psychology first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The Joys and Sorrows of Being a Celebrity Fan: James Dean, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Mantle

No one who frequents the dark auditorium is really an atheist
— Edgar Morin, Marxist Movie Critic


Cross-cultural uniqueness of celebrity culture

If members of a tribal society during Paleolithic or Neolithic times, or even members of Bronze Age Egypt or Mesopotamia had heard about the United States population’s devotion to celebrities, they wouldn’t believe it.  How could you become attached to a person you will never meet, whose shelf life might be five to 10 years and who doesn’t know or care about your life? How can it be that during a period of adolescence these celebrities might be more important than one’s family, relatives, friends? What if we told these ancient peoples that these celebrities came to be seen as more interesting than religious or political authorities? Again, disbelief. This article is partly experiential description of how that process of creating and sustaining celebrities came to be.

Questions about the differences between fame and celebrity

Is it possible to be famous without being a celebrity? Is it possible to be a celebrity without being famous? What is the place of mass communication in developing notoriety? Can a person be famous without the presence of mass communication?

What about the place of fans? Can you be famous without having fans?  What is the relationship between charisma, sex appeal, and competence? Is it possible to be famous and not have charisma? Is it possible to be a celebrity and be incompetent?

Is there any difference between the psychological health of people who are famous as opposed to those who are celebrities? How relevant is capitalism to notoriety? Can there be celebrities without capitalism?

The place of celebrity in adolescent socialization

Every young boy or girl is socialized by different forces. Sociologists name at least seven sources of socialization: the family, the state, and religious authorities are usually the most conservative of forces. Liberal forces of socialization include education, friends, advertising, and celebrity culture (including movie heroes and heroines, sports figures and movie stars).  Contrary to what you might expect, sociologists have found that neither advertising nor movie stars, sports figures nor musicians could compete with the more long-standing sociological forces of family, religious organizations, the state or education in terms of the internalization of values. However, this celebrity culture could definitively involve sidetracking the individual.

When I was about ten years old, like most middle-class kids of the late 1950s, I had my own room, and I could hang any pictures on the wall that I wanted. Who was on that wall? Was it a picture of my parents, grandparents or other relatives? Are you crazy? Were there pictures of the American flag or a crucifix? Not on your life! Were there pictures of my teachers? My teachers were nuns. If I ever got hold of a picture of them, it would be used as a dart board. My friends? We are getting closer, but friends were to be played with, not frozen into photographs. I had three huge posters on my wall. One of a sullen James Dean looking down; another of Jerry Lee Lewis burning down his piano, and the last of Mickey Mantle connecting for another long home run (the picture at the beginning of this article). What the movie stars, musicians, and baseball players meant for my socialization is also the subject of this article. 

Fame vs Celebrity

From my research into two books, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History by Leo Braudy and Celebrity by Chris Rojek, I found some interesting differences between what it means to be famous, what it means to be a celebrity. What both forms of notoriety have in common is their relationships with the public:

  • have a lopsided epistemology with the notorious person knowing nothing about those who follow them; or
  • what relations exist are thin, lack any thickening or deepening of communication.

What is fame?

There are four elements of fame according to Leo Braudy: a person, an accomplishment, the immediate publicity that surrounds the event or person, and posterity (how they are thought of beyond their lifetime). For most of human history, fame existed without celebrity. Fame was based on legitimate social sources. For example, religious authorities like popes or cardinals could be famous. Political authorities like Solon, the Athenian statesman, lawmaker and poet, or Pericles were famous. Lastly, military heroes could be famous. Beyond the ancient world, competing Renaissance artists became famous. One of the characteristics that creates a celebrity is mass media, which was absent for most of human history. Without mass media, the public was reminded of famous people through the minstrel storytelling, literature, and by attending theater or by being forced to look up at towering monuments. Lastly, fame could be spread by the circulation of coins with the emperor’s picture on them.

How did the person become famous? This occurred as the result of great deeds, by the spreading of their reputation among elites, or through rumor or gossip. Fame did not easily spread to faraway places until the rise of the printing press, newspapers, and the telegraph. The status of famous people could be either ascribed or achieved. Ascribed status such as the divine right of kings or a religious authority who inherited their office, or an aristocrat passing down his land to his son. Achieved fame can be fame that came to an individual because of their skill. A religious, political or military authority could become famous because of religious reforms, outstanding political maneuverings, or military strategies or tactics.

The percentage of people who became famous was minuscule compared to the size of their populations. People who were famous had next to no interaction with the public except to pass by them as part of a military parade or a pageant. Their social interaction was limited to other elites. In other words, there were no fans of famous people. Fans are a product of celebrity culture, as we will soon see. The power bases of famous people were either legitimacy or competency, with charisma or sexual power being a secondary source.  Force, coercion or economic power are usually not ingredients in becoming famous. Famous people offer blessings (the magic touch of the king) or healings. Famous people have nothing to do with impacting the personality of the people who admire them, as happens with celebrities. People are famous for generations. There are no flash-in-the-pan famous people. Religious, political and military elites live in little worlds of their own. With rare exceptions, the overwhelming majority of famous people were men, and they were subject to neither fads nor fashions, as was the case at the beginning of the 18th century.

What is a celebrity?

At the end of the 19th century a new kind of notoriety appeared, celebrity. Celebrity grew from the ashes of the decline in respect for religious and political authorities. Celebrities are not members of traditional elites. There are no such things as ascribed celebrities, as the competition to be in the movies, sports or music is fierce. Unlike famous people, celebrities are extremely well-known and this is due to the presence of mass media. National newspapers, magazines, movies, radio, and later television gave new celebrities an instant and expanding audience. However, unlike famous people, the life of celebrities is very-short lived. The shelf-life of movie stars is relatively brief, especially for women. It is rare for movie stars to capture the public’s attention for more than a few years, if that. When I think of Rhythm and Blues musicians, their hits won’t last more than about five years. People like Ray Charles or Van Morrison are the exceptions. After that, musicians go on the road as nostalgic acts, if they are lucky. When it comes to baseball, the time for the stars might be a little longer – ten to fifteen years. After that, fans are on to new flames. Unlike as with famous people, the power bases of movie stars are charisma and sexual attractiveness, in addition to competency. While most famous people were overwhelmingly men, there is more of a balance between men and women in the life of a celebrities.

Celebrities also developed as the U.S. population searched for a new kind of transpersonal identity that was necessary as the industrial revolution ran roughshod over urban communities. It is no accident that sports teams and the cinema were both product and producer of public needs beginning at the end of the 19th century. Famous people did not have fans. Fans are a product of the public’s ongoing vicarious involvement with the movies and their stars, musicians and their bands, and sports superstars and their teams. All this could not be possible without mass media. Celebrities have a special kind of relationship with their fans that famous people did not have with their public.

Fans help to make celebrities larger than life with their turnouts at the Academy Awards, ball games and concerts. However, fans can make the lives of celebrities a living hell, allowing them no private life. It is not surprising that celebrities acquire psychological disorders like narcissism, paranoia, or drug addiction disproportionate to the population (Chris Rojek).  Magazines like People keep tabs on celebrities and hold interviews in which the stars “open up” about their traumas, disappointments, and recoveries. There were no fashions prior to the 18th century. Before then, people simply wore the clothes of their social class. It wasn’t until advertisers got control over newspapers, magazines, and radio that they were able to suggest that the public has the right to wear whatever they want. Furthermore, that clothing could be rotated with the changing of the seasons. As for fads, they are the product of mass communication and where trends begin. Celebrities are both producers and products of fads and fashions.

Theories of celebrity

Chris Rojek reviews at least five theories of celebrity. The first theory is subjectivist, claiming that celebrity status is the product of the celebrity’s personality, their possession of charisma. This is a cultural version of the “great man” theory of history. The second theory is that of the Frankfurt School. This sees the function of celebrities and star culture as a means for socially controlling the masses. For example, it is no coincidence that there are rarely celebrities in movies or music who aspire to group emancipation. Celebrities promote individualism.

For Edgar Morin, French philosopher and sociologist of the theory of information, celebrities are not under the control of elites but rather they are the projection of the pent-up needs of the audience themselves. For Morin, celebrities are the transformers, accumulating and enlarging the dehumanized desires of the audience. For D. Marshall and J. Gamson, the main emphasis is neither the charisma, the social control of elites, nor the needs of the audience. Rather the mass media itself is a force to be reckoned with as they have their own capitalist interests for keeping celebrity culture alive.  Lastly, the foundational types of character theory of Orrin Klapp argue that audiences don’t just have individual needs, but group needs as well. The audience is made up of members of social groups that develop character types that have an impact on the kind of roles that appeal to audiences. For example, the “good Joe”, the villain, the tough guy, the snob, the prude, and the love queen are both the result of the audiences’ private life that are projected on to the characters, as movie makers have learned to adapt their movie characters to these expectations.Hollywood Movie Stars

Brief evolution of the star system

According to Edgar Morin in his book The Stars, the first movie stars in silent films participated in very simple movie plots which were a combination of fantasy and melodrama. The first stars resembled a kind of distant royalty. The mood of the early movies was pessimistic and tragic with the audience mostly composed of popular and juvenile audiences. After 1930, plots became more complex and realistic. There was less reliance on occult causes of events and the appeal was more psychological. After the Great Depression in the 30s, movie producers felt pressure to make movies that had happy endings. Movies lost some of their bad associations with burlesque and started to appeal more to a middle-class audience. The gap between the movie stars and the audience began to shrink as audiences wanted their star gods, but still wanted them to have at least some of the same types of personal problems that they had. Stars were still viewed as considerably above audiences, but Morin now called them a “constitutional monarchy of lesser stars.” The stars greatly resembled the gods and goddesses of classical Greece. They were not of a higher moral order. They had the same problems as the audience, except on a higher larger scale. The gods and goddesses had affairs and there were scenes of betrayal, war, peace, and adventure.

One interesting side effect was that the presence of movie stars on the big screen impacted the expectations the public had about their criteria for dating. As people went to movies and bought up movie magazines with touched-up pictures of the stars, boys and girls started expecting their dating partners to measure up to their movie idols, both physically and emotionally. Fans were less interested in dating people like themselves.

Four types of audience-star relationship

In his book Stars, Richard Dyer cites the work of Andrew Tudor, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, who suggested four types of audience-star relationships:

  • Emotional affinity – this is the most common and involves a loose attachment between the star, the storyline, and the personality orientation of the audience.
  • Self-identification – the audience places themselves in the same situation as the star. They imagine themselves on the screen, experiencing what the stars are experiencing.
  • Imitation – most common among young teenagers and takes the relationship beyond cinema, with the star acting as a life-model for the audience. Fans mimic the star’s clothing, hairstyle, and leisure activities.
  • Projection – “star-struck” – the public lives their life as if they were the star. The real-world and the star-world gets reversed. The fans ask themselves “what would the star do?”, before swinging into action.

Idol 1: Movies, James Dean

The process by which I found out about James Dean is embarrassing. It wasn’t that I had watched the movie, Rebel Without a Cause, and fell in love with him. It was a large poster-sized picture of him in a music store that caught my eye. He was looking down and brooding. I think I also saw a picture of him in a motorcycle jacket, which I think was the clincher.  Years later I watched the movie and while I liked it, I couldn’t identify with it. His family was upper-middle class and they lived in a big house. Dean was very inarticulate, and I couldn’t understand what he wanted from his father. I was mad at my parents for sending me to a Catholic school, but I didn’t feel they misunderstood me. Still the theme of rebelling against the authorities – in my case the Catholic Church – was good enough for me. When my parents saw the larger-than-life poster on the wall, they didn’t like it. They may have understood what the picture meant better than I did.  Naturally enough, their disapproval reassured me I was on the right track!

Why did I idolize him?

What did it mean to idolize him? For one thing, he let me know that I was not alone with my problems. Also, these problems had to do with my age. Teenagers were supposed to be unhappy. The fact that he was a movie star, plastering his unhappiness in interviews, photographs, and newsreels, let me know this was a national problem. Now I certainly had friends who were unhappy like I was, but why wasn’t knowing and talking to them enough? It’s because friendships required work. You had to listen to them, and many could not really appreciate my problems. With a movie star, not only did I not have to listen to him, but I could project the image of a perfect older brother, a teen-age listener who understood everything. No matter what problems I was having with my parents or teachers in school, I could always come home from school, go in my room, close the door, and James would be there, reassuring me that everything was bullshit.

Application of theories of celebrity to James Dean

In terms of theories of celebrity, James certainly had charisma, but I don’t think that the function of his stardom was for social control as the Frankfurt School argues. Being a rebel against the conformity of the early 50s was cutting edge. Sure, it was about individual not social rebellion, but the social movements of the 60s were just getting started. I didn’t feel Morin’s theory applied either. I did not feel Dean was an expression of some pent-up dehumanized life I was leading. I’m sure that Dean would have fit into Orrin Klapp’s social type as an outsider. But the problem is that if these types are always operating as Klapp claims, what were the conditions of the early 50s that made these rebel movies such hot items? After all, Marlon Brando and others were selling rebel movies as well. Klapp has no answer for this. Besides Dean’s charisma, Marshall ‘s and Gamson’s mass media self-interest was very present. It was the bombardment of Dean’s image, not just in movies, but on billboards and posters that drew me in. Perhaps the biggest favor that no theory covers was the close relationship of our ages. I must have been about 16 and Dean must have been about 25, still within the range for me to identify with him. He was a perfect rebel for me because I was at an age when rebellion was starting to almost be expected.

What kind of fan attachment to Dean did I have?

Relative to the types of audience attraction, my connection to Dean was mild emotional affinity. I did not know about his personal life, let alone try to imitate it. I can say that I copied his hair and clothing that was uniquely his. Having a pompadour and wearing motorcycle jackets was a dark, but attractive side of the late 1950s culture. So it wasn’t because of James Dean alone that I dressed like him.

Idol 2 Music: Jerry Lee Lewis

Musician celebrities had a much more powerful impact on me than movie stars, because listening to music is the most powerful of all the arts in altering states of consciousness for me. Jerry Lee appealed to me because of his raw rebelliousness. Whether it was Great Balls of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin Going On or Breathless, this seemed like a guy who didn’t give a fuck. Jerry Lee was everything the Catholic Church was opposed to. Wild hair, oozing sexuality, surely on a path to Hell. Jerry even admitted that during different parts of his career that he played “the Devil’s Music”. What more can a 10-year-old boy want! But beyond Jerry Lee all the other musicians, whether it was rhythm and blues or rock and roll, music offered me a temporary ticket out of the life I was living. I cannot say that they opened my horizons because the music was so trite that it was hardly beyond the “Flatland” life I was leading. It was more of a hope that someday I could get away from my parents and live a life as exciting as musicians, and not at all like my parents’ lives.

Application of theories of celebrity to rock and roll and rhythm and blues

It is hard to imagine a musical celebrity without charisma, so part of the attraction has to be that. Again, the Frankfurt theory about social control doesn’t apply for the same reasons I gave in my section on James Dean. Even if we take the rhythm and blues scene into the sixties, with the exception of the early 60s, most rock and rhythm and blues supported the anti-war civil rights movement. It was not a distraction or an escape.

My reservations about Morin’s and Klapp’s theories apply for the same reasons as they do for movie stars. Again, mass media was crucial to my attachment to rock and roll and rhythm and blues. The music was on the radio, on TV, in live concerts, and in the movies. All these media sources saw lots of money to be made. Furthermore, as in my commentary on James Dean, I listened to this music when I was between 10-20 years old, which is prime time for rebellion. Had I been forty years old and digging this movement, we would need a different explanation.

Type of fan attachment for rock and roll and rhythm and blues

What kind of fan attachment did I have to rock and roll and rhythm and blues?

It was deeper than my movie attachment (see my article My Love Affair with Rhythm and Blues). I didn’t just listen to the music. I sang along and I also sang into a tape recorder. I really worked at imitating my favorites – Buddy Holly, Elvis, the Drifters. Going into my room and closing the door, I would go “Up on the Roof” just like the Drifters invited me to do. These musicians were my gods and goddesses. I memorized their songs, showed up at their concerts, bought their records, found out about their lives, rooted for them to have hits and cried when they faded or died. I cried when Sam Cooke died and I cried when Elvis made his comeback. I see my attachment as a combination of self-identification and imitation. I bought the same kind of clothes they had and styled my hair like theirs. As I said in my Rhythm and Blues article, they were my gods and goddesses. Given how much I still listen to their music, they still are.

Idol 3 Sports: Mickey Mantle

Being a participant deepens attachment as a fan

As I hope I demonstrated in this last section, the degree to which we become involved with a single or multiple celebrities also depends on our own willingness to move beyond being a spectator and become a participant. My relationship with a movie star celebrity will intensity if I act myself. In music, if I play an instrument myself, I will feel more involved with the musician. In the case of sports, I played baseball (hardball) myself. As a fan, I started to follow the Yankees at about the same time my father and I used to play catch and hit the ball around. In both cases, I was about 7 years old and the time was 1955.

Like many New York kids at that time, the ultimate choices of idols came from the New York teams – Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Duke Snider. One of the reasons I think I loved Mickey Mantle was that his plate appearances were so dramatic – he either hit tape measure home runs or struck out or he walked. There was always controversy around him because many New Yorkers insisted he could never replace Joe DiMaggio. Mantle was often booed by the fans. Because he was a country boy from Oklahoma, he was not articulate with the press which made things worse.

As I was playing stick ball in the streets and hard ball in the sandlots, I used to imitate Mickey, copying his batting stance. I became a good drag bunter, in part from knowing and copying Mickey. I mostly used to try to hit home-runs and was proud that I could do this, even though I was not especially big physically. From the time I was seven to eleven years of age, I played shortstop. But once the batters were strong enough to hit the ball to the outfield, I switched positions. I was naturally drawn to centerfield, because, as in shortstop, you can see the big picture. I was also suited to the position because I was fast, graceful and had a good arm. But there was part of me who wanted to play center because that was Mickey’s position.

In my sandlot career, there were two or three guys in the lineup who were better hitters than I was and they hit more home-runs, so typically I batted fifth. I liked this position because I was a better hitter with runners on base and I liked being in a position to drive in runs.  But when I played with other teams who weren’t as good, I batted third or even fourth. It sent shivers up my spine to see the line-up card with me batting third or fourth and playing center field. That was Mickey’s position in the batting order. A couple of times we had games in upper middle-class neighborhoods where the fields actually had announcers telling the fans the lineups. “Batting fourth, playing centerfield, Bruce Lerro”. I imagined I was at Yankee stadium and Bob Scheffing would announce the batting order. “Battling fourth, playing centerfield, Number 7, Mickey Mantle”, and the crowd would roar. No crowd roared for me, but my imagination did the rest.

When I was growing up there was no free agency for the players. That meant that being traded from one team to another was rare. Whoever your favorite player was, you could count on them always being there, barring injuries. Good players could last between 10 and 20 years. Mickey’s career lasted about 17 years, which was the same duration as my interest in baseball as both a fan and a player. Both ended in 1969. To give you a sense of how the fans felt about Mickey, I shall share a link with you. About 15 minutes in, you will see Mel Allen’s introduction along with a standing ovation which lasted at least seven minutes.

Sports celebrities were loved and hated by their fans and in New York the fans did not save their boos only for the opposing team.  When I would go to ballgames, I would boo some of the home team players. I would wait with my friends for the players after the game to see them come out. Two of my friends and I snooped around a hotel that we heard Mantle and Roger Maris were staying at in Queens. I knew the statistics of the players, which was good evidence for arguments about who was the best player. I watched the full ball games about three times a week and I would go in person to games, maybe once a month for six months. I cried when the Yankees lost the world series to the Braves in 1957 and celebrated when they won in 1958.

Fortunately for me, I never got so carried away as some fans do. I remember in the 1993 World Series when Mitch Williams gave up a three-run homer to Joe Carter to end the series. He received numerous death threats from Philadelphia fans. I think that actually playing the game as a participant, and being relatively successful helped to ground me, but not completely.

Application of theories of celebrity to sports

Unlike movie stars and musicians, it is possible not to be charismatic and be a professional baseball player. Charisma is not a major factor that draws fans to a particular player. In addition, the Frankfurt School theory about celebrities being a form of social control for capitalists definitely has truth in relation to sports. Noam Chomsky famously puzzled over the fact that so many people in the United States were ignorant about politics, social class, and economics. Yet these same people could make very sophisticated comments about their favorite teams’ strategies and tactics, in addition to knowing the player’s batting average, runs batted in and homeruns. Sports is definitely a diversion.  Edgar Morin’s argument about the stars being a compensation for fan’s deadened lives also has merit. Many Americans are way out of physical shape, and a good case can be made that they are living vicariously through the well-trained magnificent specimens of working-class men. Again, the power of the mass media capitalists has done a great deal to spread sports. Like music, sports is on TV, the radio and in stadiums regularly. Sports’ stars for the most part do not fit into Klapp’s theory of social type. Sports writers attempt to categories players into “Good Joes”, “Rebels”, and other types in the hopes that this will make their fans read their articles. But the best fans know that the personalities of the players cannot be reduced to cartoon characters.

Type of fan attachment to sports

The level of my fan attachment was deeper in sports than it was with either music or movie stars. One reason for this was that I became relatively good for a non-professional participant. This deepened my appreciation of the players. Also, sports are much more continuous  and intense than the movie or music industry. The timing in the fields of both the hit movies or hit songs and who sings them is unpredictable. But in baseball you have predictability. You have six months straight to follow a team and your favorite players.  In addition to the self-identification and the mimicking, there were elements of projection in my involvement as a fan.

I played hardball till I was 20 years old, which was pretty old to play if you aren’t going to do it professionally. Partly I did this because it was the only thing I was relatively good at, but partly because I was stupidly waiting to be discovered by scouts. Some adult should have read me the riot act and insisted that I cultivate other skills for future work. For whatever reasons, no one did. I don’t know if that would have mattered. I doubt I would have listened to anyone anyway. The following is an example of how being enthralled with sports and celebrities sidetracked my development as a worker.

My last baseball game was at a softball game in 1998. It was a game between the faculty and the students at a liberal arts school where I had been teaching for seven years. We won the game 15-7. I hit a three-run home run and two three -run triples, driving in nine runs. The fact that I can still remember these numbers 23 years later says a great deal about how, for better and for worse, baseball has swept me away. I wasn’t star-struck, but I was pretty close. Below is a picture of me hitting a three-run triple in first inning of that game.


The purpose of this article is to give the reader an experiential sense of what it was like for me to be a celebrity fan in three different genres of movie stardom, music stardom and sports stardom. I began the article by arguing how celebrities are unique to industrial capitalist countries. I then make a key distinction between people who are famous and people who are celebrities. I then proceeded to describe my experience with three stars: James Dean (movies), Jerry Lee Lewis (music), and Mickey Mantle (sports). For each genre I described:

  • which theory of celebrity works best;
  • which of the four kinds of audience participant I was.

I have made the argument that, for me, sports were the most powerful form of celebrity and why. But I also justify it by claiming that the consistency with which sports is played throughout the year makes it likely the most intense form of socialization for the population of the United States, should they choose to become a fan.

• First published in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post The Joys and Sorrows of Being a Celebrity Fan: James Dean, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Mantle first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The House of Cards of Clinical Psychology

Why is anger a motivation for writing this book? Because the rapid growth and professionalization of my field…has led it to abandon a commitment it made at the inception of that growth. That is to establish mental health base on research findings The practice would ignore the research…Instead, too many mental healthcare professionals rely on trained clinical intuition… it is often no different from the intuition of people who have had no training whatsoever… What our society has done is to license such people to do their own thing while simultaneously justifying that license on the basis of scientific knowledge which those licensed too often ignore.

Robyn M. Dawes, House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth, Free Press, 1st edition, November  24, 2009

Orientation Questions and Claims About Psychotherapy

  • Many clinicians think adult behavior is determined mainly by childhood What does the research show?
  • Surely interviewing and building case studies provide better predictability of individuals than actuarial statistics like those used by insurance companies.
  • The projective testing techniques like the Rorschach tests have shown to be very helpful in getting out the client’s unconscious motivates and drives.
  • How much does the age of the therapist indicate greater learning in the field? Surely this is true because all older therapists have more experience.
  • How well does raising self-esteem with psychological techniques predict improvements in personal and social behavior?
  • Does possessing a license imply that therapists are using scientifically sound methods?

Turning from the therapy office to the courtroom:

  • How good does professional psychological testimony in legal proceedings work in predicting competency for standing trial, establishing divorce and child custody or allegations of child abuse in the absence of physical evidence or reliable witnesses?
  • What are the chances that clinicians can know what someone was thinking just before they committed suicide?
  • Could therapists tell within 10 minutes of meeting them when someone has been sexually abused as a child based on that person’s general demeaner?
  • How likely is it that multiple personality disorders result from repeated sexual abuse or being raised by parents who practiced Satanism?

Defining the Boundaries of Psychology

This article is based on a very powerful criticism of the field of professional psychology by Robyn M. Dawes: House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth.

Are psychological problems mental illnesses?

Recently “mental illness” is being presented in our society as just the same as any other illness. According to Dawes, this has been done to destigmatize emotional distress by claiming that it is an illness is nothing to be embarrassed about. But the constant repetition of this assertion has gradually convinced the public and professional psychologists themselves that what psychotherapists or paraprofessionals do to alleviate emotional distress is similar to what medical doctors do to alleviate or cure physical disease. This is a very bad analogy, as we shall see. We must proceed carefully.

According to Dawes, there are three important mental illness categories for judging people’s mental health:

  • An outside observer thinks its dysfunctional
  • The individual client reports it as emotional distress
  • The behavior is derogated by others

Critics like Szasz and Masson concentrate on the third characteristic.

Psychology does not have the rigor of medicine or engineering

The problem for psychologists in calling psychological problems “illnesses” is that they create expectations that their practice is more rigorous than it is. It promises results that they cannot deliver. The field of psychology cannot give the results of engineering or medicine. We trust engineers because city buildings don’t fall down, and we rarely see plane flights that crash. We trust doctors because we have evidence it works. Doctors take out appendixes, and antibiotics and surgeries can cure people of many diseases.  Once cancer enters the bloodstream, we can usually predict what will happen.

The need for psychology to be cautious

Professional psychologists cannot predict what an individual will do with this kind of accuracy. Dawes says:

There is always more unexplained variation in the results than there is variation that can be explained by the trend we believe the study has supported. (29)

Responsible professionals should practice with a cautious, open, and questioning attitude. The field of psychology has developed several effective measuring devices and ways to predict future behavior. The most surprising thing is that it can be administered without much training and does not require extensive degrees, training, or experience to interpret.In addition, some people who experience distress will simply get over it, whether they are in treatment or not. When high school students were asked to predict which patients would become violent, their average judgments were almost identical to the average judgment of professionals. Some therapists’ research in:

…behavior and theory (are) derived from careful research studies and an analysis of their implications. Ironically, these are often not high-priced people; They are associated with universities and their treatment is systematic, they often involve several paraprofessionals in their teams. (290)

There is very little evidence that expertise in the mental health area has brought about a reduction in the incidence of emotional disturbance and distress. Even great champions of drug therapies maintain that all these drugs do is control the condition. According to Dawes, while therapy helps two thirds of the clients, it leaves the other third worse off than if they were in a control group. A profession with this kind record of failure rate would seem to require caution all the more.

Cognitive biases of professional psychologists

Clinical judgment is often based on a number of cognitive biases:

  • In searching one’s memory in building a case, there is something called the “availability bias”.  Because of selective exposure, recall will be selective. We are more likely to remember some things more than others.
  • The “representative bias”. This is where you fit the evidence that most likely fits with the stereotype of that person or situation.
  • The “vividness bias”. Therapists are no different than other people in that they are drawn to stories that are vivid in terms of color, music, smell, taste, or touch. These cases will stick out in their minds over a variety of drab cases.

Scientific methods: how do we know what we know?

How do we know what we know? By the ability to predict. In other words, if you know a phenomenon well, you should be about to show me what happen next. In doing this, a scientist must not only have a group of people with whom he tests his hypothesis. He must also have a randomly controlled group alongside of it in evaluating treatment and therapy.

To summarize, what is needed to test a professional psychologist’s claim to understanding is:

  • An assessment of their predictive power.
  • A comparison of the accuracy with that of some other means of prediction.
  • The ability to reach their conclusions in a way that would convince skeptics.
  • Allow the outside observers to reach a conclusion about its effectiveness. In psychotherapy symptom remission is a prime candidate for such an indicator.

In terms of evaluation of the therapy, patients are not reliable judges because they have spent a great deal of money.  It would be hard to admit it wasn’t worth it. Therapists are not good judges because of all the time they spent with the client, and they have a theory to defend.

Why statistical reasoning is necessary

Statistical predictions are specifically designed to discover a pattern of contexts of variability.  People have a very great difficulty time combining qualitatively distinct or incomparable predictors. Dawes gives the following examples:

  • How does an interviewer for a student applying for medical school combine information about a past college record with a score on the medical school aptitude test?
  • How to integrate information about past job history with a self-reflective statement about ambitions and goals?
  • A positive test result with an unusual Rorschach inkblot test with the knowledge that a disease indicated by such results are extremely rare.

The problem is the more we know about people through interview case studies, the more complicated these individual cases get. In reaction we might be tempted to be drawn to striking but irrelevant information rather than statistically valid information, which is less striking.

Bad judgments among professional psychologists:

As we will see, many professional psychologists do not follow scientific procedure or rely on knowledge of actuarial tables when:

  • judgments are made in the absence of well validated scientific theory;
  • when therapists are evaluated without systematic feedback about how good they are;
  • the supportive evidence is simply hypothesized;
  • the negative evidence that has been collected is simply ignored, or;
  • arguing from a vacuum – what is purported to be true is supported, not by direct evidence but by attacking an alternative possibility.

Does Licensing Assure Quality?

There are various unlicensed people who also present themselves to the public as experts, such as rape counselors, alcohol counselors, and religious counselors. This is one set of problems. But what about those who are licensed? Surely, they must be better. Does licensing ensure that valid scientific techniques of findings will be used by professional therapists in a valid manner? Sadly, the answer is no. Licensing is set up for institutional psychological settings like hospitals, prisons, psychological wards, or halfway houses. The problem is that these settings deal with patients very different from the relatively tame clients that private psychotherapists see. In addition, according to Dawes, only 9.8 percent of licensed psychologists work in these settings.

The education and training psychologists receive is not necessarily training in valid scientific techniques or theories. The licensing does not mandate that the psychologist share with the client the fact that they are employing a technique where no scientific standard exists. Nor that they are practicing techniques that are not generally accepted as reliable in the psychological research community. In 1990, only 30% of APA members subscribed to any of its journals. Licensing can be defined as official and legal permission to do or own any particular thing. But another definition can also mean deviation from normal rules and practices. Licensing has ironically and unintentionally taken on the last meaning. Professional psychologists have been granted a license to ignore the research once they have the license.

Dilution and deterioration of the field

In addition, the field is on the one hand growing by leaps and bounds, but it is also deteriorating in quality. Here Dawes describes a personal experience:

When I joined the APA in 1959 it had approximately 18,000 members…When I quit in 1988, there were 68,000, approximately, 40,000 of whom were in clinical or counseling… Psychological association members in professional practice grew by a factor of 16.  Clinical psychologists had doubled its numbers every 10 years. For comparison the doubling rate of lawyers is 12 years; social workers 14 years; psychiatrists 20 years. The selling point for psychologists over psychiatrists used to be that they had more extensive research training. In the light of this. The APA recognized a new degree, the Doctor of Psychology without research training PsyD (12)

…During that expansion the rigor of the scientific training of practicing psychologists diminished. We are not graduating thousands of psychologists. We are graduating thousands of practitioners who are peripherally acquainted with the discipline of psychology (6)

If the professional psychologist allows himself to be drawn into private practice, the chances of keeping up with the research and incorporating it into their practice shrinks.

The steady erosion of professional’s commitment to research findings is a basis for practice over the past 30 years. There has been an explosion in numbers which assures that there will be more bad therapists around in the 1990s than at the time when the studies were initiated (14)

Parameters and Qualifications

There are six basic schools within psychology: psychoanalysis, behaviorism, cognitive, biological physiological, biological-evolutionary, and humanistic. The criticisms Dawes has laid out against professional psychology is only directed at psychoanalysis, and to a lesser extent humanistic psychology. Why? First, because they do not limit themselves to interventions that have been proven to work. Secondly, they do not create settings which lend themselves to scientific scrutiny. Psychoanalysis and humanistic psychological theories do not follow the science. Dawes is not suggesting that psychotherapy doesn’t work. He is suggesting that:

  1. we can only know what works if the therapist follows and applies scientific research in therapy;
  2. therapy can be successful regardless of the credentials, or training. A skilled paraprofessional is just as good as a professional provided – they have empathy and;
  3. experiences of the therapist are unrelated to outcomes since the setting of therapy does not easily lend itself to immediate, consistent, and repeated feedback from an outside source.

Despite these disturbing conclusions from a professional psychology point of view, the salaries of professional psychologists are high relative to researchers and academic psychologists. Professional psychologists would, no doubt, like to keep it that way. These conclusions are based on over 500 scientific studies of the psychotherapy outcome.

Psychoanalysis and humanistic psychology do share one common characteristic: individualistic egoism. Dawes points out that this egoistic individualism framework is consistent with frameworks in other social sciences, like classical economics or political science. This leads to the following individualist mistakes of psychodynamics and humanistic psychology:

  • a preference for case studies rather than statistical reasoning;
  • attempting to build self-esteem before taking action (as opposed encouraging action first and seeing if that might raise self-esteem) and;
  • motivation and insight must precede effective behavior.

I am not a stranger to the field of psychology. In addition to teaching as an adjunct in college and psychology departments for 27 years, I worked in halfway houses for two years in the 1990s. I worked in a 40-week training, court-ordered program for two years called Men Overcoming Violence. I have worked as a private counselor with a specialty in goal setting and overcoming procrastination. In most of these settings I used the methods of cognitive psychology. I have an M.A. in counseling psychology.


Table A below shows the most important myths of psychoanalysis that Dawes points out:Weaknesses of interviews and case studies

Some professional psychologists think they and their clients are above statistical reasoning. They say that while statistical generalizations can be useful, they cannot predict what the therapist’s client is likely to do next. For this, the therapist claims their knowledge of this individual case will deliver the goods. After all, the individual is “unique”.

Besides, humanistic psychologists might say, statistical predictions are “dehumanizing” because they reduce people to “mere numbers”. In addition, these findings are taken as an affront to the self-image of the purported experts themselves. For persuading the public on television shows that while single vivid anecdotes might work, they don’t work in science. In the majority of situations, the individual’s past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, and these can be given with statistics.

Actuarial statistics hold up better in hospitals and prisons, according to Dawes. Weighing actuarial variables of those in hospitals like material status, length of psychotic distress and the degree of patient insight, outperformed the hospital’s medical and psychological staff members’ opinions. Turning to prison recidivism, actuarial variables, like past criminal records and current prison behavior, predictions of whether the prisoners would return to prison have proven better than expert criminologists’ predictions:

Jack Sawyer, 12 years later, published a review of about 45 studies; again, in none was the clinical prediction superior (83)

…Professional psychologists could not even detect young adolescents who were faking brain damage on standard intellectual tests after {the subjects} were given no instruction other than “to be convincing”. Yet less than 10% recognized the fake results. (91)

In the business context of predicting bankruptcy, a formula has been found to be superior to the judgement of bank loan experts (93)

It is not as if the case study and interview is worthless. The interview can be good for framing the kind of questions asked, and the categories that should be included in the experiment. In addition, the qualities that impress therapeutic interviews are not the same as how the client acts at work, with their co-workers and supervisors, or at home with their families where they live their lives. Despite all this, experts continue to interview and make predictions, and express great confidence in the validity of their predictive judgments.

Ignoring the counterfactuals

Psychoanalysts ignore what are called hypothetical counterfactuals. For example, in the courts, knowing what would have happened if custody had been granted to the other parent. Mental health workers in hospitals notice people who return to an institution, but do not notice those who do not.

Making up theories and tests that have not been scientifically validated

Perhaps the worst license of all is the “license” to make up one’s psychological theories from the psychologist’s experience with clients that have not been peer reviewed or tested. Secondly, the “license” to make up one’s tests from experience without scientific validation. This often leads to the Barnum Effect, where the list of the symptoms gets larger and larger and where virtually every symptom becomes an indicator of the problem. I have seen this happens over the years with the use of symptom growth of ADHD, borderline personality, narcissism, and addiction.

In a courtroom setting, both manufactured theories and tests are presented as part of being an expert witness. This license that has been granted is frightening in cases of child abuse and sexual abuse. The claim of some professional psychologists to detect child abuse has been to assert that “children never lie”. The subconscious mind is claimed to have a memory bank of everything we ever experienced – exactly as we perceived it. This flies in the face a great deal of research that indicated the flawed nature of human memory. Its nature is reconstructive – such that events that literally never occurred can be recalled in great detail with the proper leading questions by the therapist, both in therapy and in the courtroom.

Making the past determine the present

Historically, psychoanalysis has made its bread and butter from telling people that events that occurred within the first three years of life pretty much determine how adults turn out. Dawes points out that there is no evidence for this, especially in determining child abuse. He says:

There is no evidence that childhood abuse and neglect will out, or that it will have some permanent effect on adulthood without it first having an effect on adolescence. (219)

Jerome Kagan, who has spent decades studying temperament in young children, says: continuity does not imply inevitability. The human organism is highly resilient in the face of deleterious experiences and sufficiently malleable to bounce back, given constructive inputs. Only continual obstacles will prevent an initial bend in a twig from righting itself towards the sun. (218)

The problem is that feeling and believing that one is a victim of early traumatic experience is likely to induce a demoralized state in which the person stops trying to make things right in the present.  Or they must wait for years until they develop insight with the therapist’s help into what really happened so that these early events no longer haunt their lives. In the meantime, their lives can become worse. Dawes says the therapist should be blamed for putting unscientific ideas in people’s heads and teaching them to hate their parents. Where is the evidence that simply learning to blame or hate somebody is therapeutic?

Doll interpretations are not scientific

In the courts, professional psychologists often turn to doll play for as a tool for finding out if a child has been abused. Dawes says there is no psychological evidence that this works. Currently there is no standardized set of questions for conducting interviews using the dolls or standardized agreement as to how to interpret them.

This lack of validity does not prevent professionals from using the technique. The sad reality is that agencies not directly connected to psychology are using these unscientific techniques, including child protective agencies and the criminal justice system.

Rorschach tests aren’t scientific

Whether in or out of court settings, Rorschach tests are very popular among clinicians. This is popularly known as the inkblot test. Vague images are presented that are either the result of actual inkblot patterns resulting from a folded paper with a blot of ink on it or standardly vague images are presented and then interpreted.  For example, the clinician interprets whether the client attempts to integrate the entire blot into a single image or uses only part of it or only focuses on small detail. Use of the whole blot is interpreted as needing to form a big picture of grandiosity. Tiny details are interpreted as being an obsessive personality. The content of the imagery also matters. Many people see animals, but too high a proportion of animals indicates immaturity or a lack of imagination. Seeing figures that are part human and part nonhuman like satyrs, cartoon characters, or witches indicates alienation. It’s not that these interpretations aren’t interesting. But a therapist with a license that requires them to be scientific should not be making untested interpretations while making money off the public’s dime.

These tests have been dismissed by scientific psychologists:

In 1959, many of the world’s most eminent psychologists were lined up against the use of the Rorschach. Hans Eysenck quoted Lee Cronbach, one of the world’s leading experts of psychometric testing, said that “the test has repeatedly failed as a prediction of practical criteria”. In 1978 Richard H. Davis concluded that “the general lack of predictive validity for the Rorschach raises serious questions about its continued use in clinical practice”. (151-152)

After all this, why does it continue among licensed professionals. One reason is that it has intuitive and creative appeal. But another reason could be they are paid well for administering it.

Humanistic Psychology and the Obsession with Feelings and Self-Esteem

I feel, therefore I am

Late in his book, in Chapter 8, Dawes shifts gears from writing about the problems of clinical psychoanalytic therapies to what he unfortunately calls “New Age psychology”. What he is describing (the preoccupation with feelings and the obsession with self-esteem) were happening long before the New Age, the beginnings of which I date around 1978. The school of psychology that fits the bill is humanistic psychology. So, I will continue to describe the results of his research,but I have renamed the school as it is an expression of “Humanistic”, not New Age psychology.

As far back as the 18th century Enlightenment, the cause of psychological behavior was believed to be conscious choice after rational weighing of pros and cons.

For the Calvinists of 16th and 17th centuries, lack of willpower was considered a problem and needed to be overcome through prayer and introspection. Emotions were never taken seriously. They were seen as temporary fits of irrationality. It was not until the romantics in the hundred-year period between the end of the 18th and 19th centuries that emotions were not only taken seriously but were also considered primary. Humanistic psychology, just like the counterculture it sprang from, is directly connected to Romanticism.

The tendency of humanistic psychologists is to reduce all problems being determined by feelings which are repressed and need to be expressed. As Dawes writes, the platonic hierarchy was turned on its head. Contrary to the Enlightenment, it was rationality that was the problem. The belief is that we can only get better by allowing the magical but bratty child within to come out.Self-esteem

Beginning in the late 1970s, poor self-esteem is often cited as the cause of everything from failure to learn in elementary school, to failures in business, to failed marriages. Nathaniel Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem propagated the importance of self-esteem. Instead of self-esteem arising as a result of action taken, high self-esteem was presented as a pre-condition for taking action. Diminished self-esteem stands as a powerful independent variable. But what does it matter that we know why we exercise before exercising? The behavior is more important than the motives for engaging in it. It is not necessary to feel wonderful about ourselves first. Dawes writes:

there is no evidence that for the majority of people a change in internal state and feeling is necessary prior to behaving in a beneficial way. (293)

Nevertheless, long-time state assemblyman John Vasconcellos promoted the establishment of a task force to promote self-esteem and the governor of CA, George Deukmejian, signed a bill to fund its work in 1986. The conclusions after putting these problems into practice were the following:

  1. There is insufficient evidence to support the belief in a direct relation between low self-esteem and child abuse.
  2. Low self-esteem should not be perceived as the primary cause of child abuse especially when compared to other factors such as age, employment status, availability of childcare and economic insecurity.
  3. There is no basis for arguing that increasing self-esteem is effective in decreasing child abuse.
  4. there is no evidence that lower self-esteem plays a causal role in alcoholism or drug use.

Furthermore, Dawes writes that this way of thinking about low self-esteem discourages taking action, and instead seeking talk therapy. More importantly, raising the self-esteem of children had no bearing on the academic performance of Yankees compared to students in Japan and China in the areas of geography and mathematics. Yankee students also do much less homework and have a shorter school year. They are poorer students despite the crusade to raise self-esteem in the schools. Finally, Dawes claims that attempts of schools to raise self-esteem by lowering standards hurts children in the long run.

Mental health equals living on the sunny side of the street

Humanistic psychology’s picture of mental health consists of high self-esteem, optimism, feelings of invulnerability, and self-confidence – all characteristics which are internal, pervasive, and stable over time for one’s own success. Conversely external locus of control, specific conditions and fleeing explanations go with one’s failure. This argument may be found in Shelley Taylor’s Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and Heathy Mind.

By the late 1970s, the decline of Yankee capitalism had not reached the middle classes, and even working-class people could still imagine that the American dream was possible. With the proper internal characteristics – hard work, frugality, prudence and preservice – people could live the dream. But as the standard of living declined steeply for middle-class and working-class people, how psychologically healthy was it to continue to imagine you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps? Having good reasons for being pessimistic might be healthier. If a worker is out of work because of the chaotic capitalist economy, wouldn’t it be healthier to have an external locus of control which blames the system, not the individual? Nonetheless, for comfortable upper middle-class professional psychologists, the mandate they give us today is the old “pull yourself by your own bootstraps”, and “don’t worry, be happy” at whatever cost to one’s own reality testing.

How Do Professional Psychologists get away with this?

The myth that expanding experience leads to increased learning

Part of the reason the public has gone along with the lack of the use of science on the part of clinicians is because of the public’s belief that long-term experience enhances the performance of professionals. After all, it does that in other professions, such as medical procedures being performed by surgeons. However, in the case of mental health professions, because of the lack of critical, consistent feedback, it is far from a done deal that therapists learn from their experience. The empirical data indicates that:

  1. mental health professionals’ accuracy of judgment does not increase with clinical experience once a rudimentary mastery of the techniques has been learned, and
  2. neither does their success as psychotherapists.

Learning motor skills is not the same as learning how to categorize and predict

It is clear we learn many motor skills, gradually from practices such as learning to drive in a straight line or learning to drive a stick-shift. But are clinical skills in the mental health professions of that nature as well? No, they aren’t. Because the psychologist does not experience feedback about the effects of their intervention on a patient that are:

  1. Immediate,
  2. unambiguous (a clear understanding of what constitutes an incorrect response), and
  3. continuous.

In the mental health profession, none of these conditions are satisfied. The type of feedback mental health professionals is given by their clients tends to be not immediate, chaotic, and sometimes non-existent. The client leaves and the therapist doesn’t know what happened. Meanwhile, the profession has been going merrily along in the absence of such findings, and that reflects the degree to which the profession has lost its research base. The public is not aware of this contradiction between the license and the lack of systemic learning and just trusts them as professionals. The American people know the national mental health problem is getting worse, yet they do not know the research about expertise incompetence.

The power of lobbying

Professional psychology has been able to survive, though far from its resource base in science, by lobbying state and national governments for money and privilege. Clinical work also appeals to students so they can apply their knowledge to real people after years of academic “preparation for life”.

Unscientific clinical theory often matches public intuition

The first need to which arguments are made for enhancing professional psychology is the need for authority. Imagine how extremely difficult life would be if we did not accept what many authorities tell us is true. Life would become impossible. In addition, sometimes the views of therapists’ views often coincide with popular intuition. For example, when people are told about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they usually spontaneously agree with it. Yet there is no scientific evidence that the hierarchy of needs matches any scientific testing and follow up. Another opinion that seems to make intuitive sense to the public is thinking that personality factors matter more than situational factors. Social psychologists name this as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a tendency of people in industrial capitalist countries to:

  1. attribute personality factors when someone else does something that we don’t like,
  2. or when we do something we like.

This is opposed to situational variables. Both professional psychologists and the public think individualistically that the person determines what happens to them, not the situation. The fact that psychoanalysis and humanistic psychology ignore the scientific research done by sister psychologists in the same field and fail to incorporate it into their theories demonstrates how rigid they are in their own theories.

Why the public should care

We are all paying for these services through insurance premiums and taxes. Dawes says:

We should not be pouring our resources and money to support high-priced people who do not help others better than those with far less training skill would, and those judgments and predictions are actually worse than the simplest statistical conclusion based on obvious variables. (5).

By supporting licensing, income and status for credentialed practitioners, the mental health professions have treated variables that really don’t matter as if they did matter. (62)

In the case of so-called “repressed memories” in court settings, parents are fighting back against charges of incest by children at the prodding of clinicians with half-baked unscientific theories:

A new group called the False memory Syndrome Foundation (1992) had a membership of about 2,000 families, mainly parents who claimed that they were falsely accused as a result of their children’s “therapy”. By the end of the first half of 1993, the membership had grown to over 4,600. (173)

By 1994 the foundation had grown to more than 7,500 members. It was dissolved on December 31, 2019.


The purpose of this article is to expose the exploitation of psychological licenses on the part of psychoanalytic and humanistic clinicians who ignore scientific research in the field while claiming expertise on the dime of the public. After some rhetorical questions and answers about the field of psychology, I began by raising questions about whether psychological problems can be categorized as mental illnesses. Then I discussed how the field of psychology does not have the rigor of predictability of medicine and that the field of psychology needs to be cautious in their claims. I discussed three typical cognitive biases in the field as well as five bad judgments that psychologists make. I contrasted this to the process of good scientific reasoning as well as the necessity of making psychological judgments based on actuarial statistics rather than case studies. In the next two sections I discussed why licensing does not assure quality judgments and how the field of professional psychology is overpopulated, and the quality of training has deteriorated.

Next, I identified the six theoretical schools of psychology. Four of the six follow scientific research while psychoanalysis and humanistic psychology tend to ignore it. In the next two sections I discussed the myths of psychoanalysis by outlining the weaknesses of case studies as a method. I also pointed out the unscientific nature of the use of dolls to ascertain child abuse as well as the use of Rorschach tests for determining psychological problems. Next, I turned to humanistic psychology and its championing of the central importance of emotions and self-esteem in psychological life. Dawes argues against the cathartic theory of the emotions as well the need to raise self-esteem prior to taking any action. He points out that the children of the Yankee population are way behind the children in China and Japan, despite many years of implementing techniques of raising self-esteem in schools. Lastly Dawes challenges the Pollyannish humanistic equation of psychological health with happiness and internal locus of control. Psychological health does not automatically mean living in the sunny side of the street.

Dawes makes the following claims based on 500 validated scientific studies:

  1. we can only know what works if the therapist follows and applies scientific research in therapy;
  2. therapy can be successful regardless of the credentials or training. A skilled paraprofessional is just as good as a professional provided they have empathy; and,
  3. the experiences of the therapist are unrelated to outcomes since the setting of therapy does not easily lend itself to immediate, consistent, and repeated feedback from an outside source.

Anticipating Objections

Single studies that contradict his thesis aren’t enough because the generality of his conclusions is dependent on:

  1. multiple studies,
  2. conducted on multiple problems, and
  3. multiple contexts.

It would take a substantial body of new research to overturn the conclusions presented here.  A new finding or set of findings that would turn the whole field I have discussed upside down is extraordinarily unlikely to occur.

Given that this book was written in 1994, it is tempting to think new research has been found to overturn Dawes’sargument. In critical book reviews I have not found significant challenges. By way of closing, I would invite you to review the questions and statements I made at the beginning of this article to see if your questions have been answered.

• First appeared in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post The House of Cards of Clinical Psychology first appeared on Dissident Voice.