Long time readers of this blog will be familiar with regular references to the famous Milgram experiment of the 1960s. This was a psychological experiment in which an unerring majority of subjects, from varying walks of life, displayed a willingness to inflict immensely painful, possibly lethal, electric shocks on strangers - when ordered to do so.
It was a microcosmic refutation of conservative efforts to attribute society’s ills to ethical deficiencies or people’s inner cruelty, recklessness or credulity. Subjective feelings did not matter. Cruel people did not inflict more shocks than kind people. Obedience, not personal disposition, was the deciding factor.
While conservatives such as Niall Ferguson chide that “we bay for regulation, though not of ourselves,” Stanley Milgram’s frequently replicated experiment shows that obedience to institutional drives, rather than wayward personal desires, explains human behaviour at the level of the economy and politics.
It follows that the economic stagnation we face, the “endless crisis” as it has been called, has systemic roots. It is not the result of human frailties but the collective outcome of people rationally pursuing the aims of the institutions they work for (you can blame bankers and CEOs if you wish but replacing them all will merely produce a new parade of faces to despise).
I still think Milgram illuminates where conservatives like Ferguson just kick up dust swirls of confusion. But the systemic/obedience explanation is not the whole story. As Milgram himself concluded, obedience, to work, has to be willingly entered into. Open compulsion just leads to resistance. People, in other words, have to want to be used.
The only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited
And we do want to be used; increasingly so. The vast majority of people are materially bound to the capitalist system’s, smooth functioning. That’s an observation, not a judgement. We have careers, we covet advancement, we have families and dependants to support. This is all the more acute at a time of economic stagnation, when jobs are thin on the ground. There are 85 applications for every graduate job in Britain. It is in your rational self-interest to make yourself into the kind of person that will make an employer choose you, rather than a rival.
As Oscar Wilde might have said, the only thing worse than being exploited, is not being exploited.
Yet at the same time leaving the system to it own devices, a system that is driven by institutional impulses and is not the collective sum of human desires, is to invite disaster, looming and unending social, economic and ecological crises.
If it is economically rational to accede to the institutional aims of the organisation you work for and to obediently carry out its day to day tasks, it is also economically rational to attempt to rise within it, to not be poor. “Our first duty, a duty to which every other consideration should be sacrificed,” said the socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw, “is not to be poor.” But here lies an intractable rational problem. This explains how economic crises can happen regardless of personal motives, but it also explains how the ‘machine’ will just go on, dispensing its consequences, because there is no-one to intervene to alter or transform its inner workings.
There is a vague hope that somewhere along the line people will decide to rebel. Milgram in his book, Obedience to Authority, likened obedience to sleep. They are both states from which people can be shaken out of. But in Anglo-American societies, at least, it seems clear that it is forlorn to hope that economic decline, the economy pressing down more severely on people, will spark rebellion.
The personal is not the political
I think the first and crucial step in resolving this conundrum is to divorce the personal from the political. We have duties to ourselves and duties to society at large and they are often not the same. The one writer I have come across who has fully recognised our dual and conflicted nature in this regard is Dan Hind.
His 2007 book, The Threat to Reason, was primarily about how being “enlightened” was not about fearlessly denouncing fundamentalists, New Agers or postmodernists but seeking out the truth about our own societies, the real nature of the state and of corporations. But he also made a neglected, though profound point, in that book. In order to transform the word, we first must give up, he said, the idea of a unified self.
“Most of us cannot and will not sacrifice our careers and the welfare of our families for the abstract demands of universal truth and justice,” he writes. “But we are nevertheless confused and distressed by the contradictions inherent in the state and corporate bureaucracies of Britain and America.”
Here is Hind speaking:
The philosophical keystone that Hind makes use of is the work of the eighteenth century German thinker, Immanuel Kant. Kant said that our accustomed definitions of ‘private’ and ‘public’ need to be reversed. When ensconced in any institutional role, as employees, we reason ‘privately’, said Kant. It is only when we are free as individuals to think, unencumbered by any institutional ties, that we can hope to reason ‘publicly’.
It is Hind’s insight that, unless we are independently wealthy, we cannot hope to escape from this dual nature. “We do not have to renounce our private identities as employees,” he writes. “But we must recognise that the sum of our private identities does not constitute the full expression or our humanity.” There is a permanent tension, Hind says, between the requirements of our economic role and a wider commitment to an accurate description of the world and the possibility of radically altered institutional arrangements.
To fully express our humanity and a desire to understand and change the world, we cannot conflate the world-view of our employer with our own. The employer we must detach from may be a corporation. But it can also be a government, a university department, or an NGO. We have to accept our institutional life, but also step outside of it.
A deathly logic
Since The Threat to Reason was published in 2007, the demands of our private identities, the inescapable need to survive and prosper within the confines of this society, have intensified massively. This has trapped us inside a deathly logic which says because we are materially dependent on the success of our actual or would be employers, we should rationally give them everything they want. “What’s good for General Motors, is good for America,” as they used to say in the US. Mould yourself into the kind of person likely to succeed, ever-flexible, ever obedient - sell yourself. At the wider level, make sure corporate tax rates are competitive because the last thing you want to do, obviously, is frighten them away.
What Hind offers is a way to loosen this constricting grip. How we act and what we want on a personal level, are vastly different and often in conflict with, how we need to act and what we should want on a political level. To colonise everything with personal needs and desires, is social suicide.
“An active acceptance of our dual nature as private and public agents holds out the prospect of a world transformed.”