Posts Tagged ‘Mass Movements’

True believers in the USA of 2021

January 22, 2021

I recently finished Eric Hoffer’s THE TRUE BELIEVER, a 1951 book about fanatical mass movements.  I think most Americans see that the USA of 2021 is ripe for such movements.

Fanatics invaded municipal buildings and burned police stations in some U.S. cities during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.  Fanatics invaded the Capitol a couple of weeks ago.

Some self-described conservatives see Donald Trump as a messianic figure sent by guide.  Some self-described progressives embrace an “anti-racism” ideology that considers “all lives matter” a racist statement.  People can become pariahs or lose their for a thoughtless comment on social media.

If you are an American, you probably think some of the things I mentioned are serious problems while others are blown out of proportion.  Whatever the case, something is going on.  What is it?

Eric Hoffer said fanatical mass movements arise when there are large numbers of people who are frustrated and lonely.

People don’t become fanatics when they are embedded in family, community and religion that give them security and meaning.  Neither do they become fanatics when they enjoy the satisfactions of creativity and achievement.

But in times when fewer and fewer are able to enjoy the security of a stable family, community and religious life, while the opportunities for individual achievement and self-determination narrow—that’s when you have to watch out.

That’s how things are in the USA today.  We live in a very unforgiving society, compared to the one I grew up in.

Economic inequality is increasing, but I think that what really worries people is the growth of economic insecurity. 

More and more workers are being pushed out of full-time work and into the gig economy, where they don’t know from week-to-week how many hours they’ll work or what they’ll earn.  Millions lack the resources to meet even a small emergency.

All this is in the name of a philosophy I and others call neoliberalism, which exalts economic efficiency above all else.  Neoliberals run the economy without any slack in the system, with all the risk off-loaded onto wage-earners, sub-contractors and the public. 

It’s not just wage workers who suffer.  Small-business owners with six-figure incomes worry about being able to compete with giant mega-corporation.  A number of billionaires are planning ahead for economic collapse, so they can retreat to secret strongholds in New Zealand or other remote place.

Unfortunately the USA is exporting instability through its economic and war policies, and through its cultural influence as well.

President Donald Trump made things worse.  He had a genius for keeping affairs in a constant state of turmoil.  Just having Trump in the news day after day was a strain.  I think some people voted for Joe Biden just because they were sick of seeing Trump on TV.

The partisan news companies keep Americans on edge.  Fox News was a pioneer in making money out of peddling fear to elderly white people.  Now, as Matt Taibbi has shown, the self-described progressives have adopted the same model.

Then there are Facebook and the other social media companies.  They have algorithms designed to feed people links to material designed to hold attention by appealing to fear and indignation. 

COVID-related lockdowns have destabilized society.  It is not just the economic impact on workers’ wages and small-business profits.  It is that people have been cut off from religious services and family gatherings, two of the main sources of consolation in times of uncertainty.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is real and deadly, and doesn’t care about anybody’s spiritual or psychological needs.  I’m an introvert who lives alone, and can afford to have groceries delivered, so I can tolerate the lockdowns better than most. 

But I can see how someone might be devastated by separation from loved ones and normal life and be willing to risk their lives rather than endure the separation.  A good many of the protests, including the invasion of the Michigan state capitol, were in opposition to the lockdown.

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Recalling Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer

January 21, 2021

I first read Eric Hoffer’s THE TRUE BELIEVER: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements shortly after it was published in 1951.

It was a big influence on me as a teenager.  Later on I thought it explained a lot about the 9/11 attacks.  I think it is very relevant today.

A number of writers in the early Cold War era tried to understand the psychology of totalitarianism—what it was that made Nazis and Communists willing to commit mass slaughter and also sacrifice their own lives.

Eric Hoffer went further than most.  He described the similarities not only between fanatic Bolshevism and fascism, but also fanatic Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Jacobinism and nationalisms of all kinds, including Zionism.

His book is highly readable, full of quotable aphorisms.  A lot of his statements are overly sweeping and forceful, but he said his intention was to provide food for thought, not to be the last word on anything.

Eric Hoffer

Hoffer himself was an interesting character.  The son of Alsatian immigrants to the United States, he was born in New York City in 1902.  Orphaned at the age of five, he went blind at seven.  Mysteriously, his sight was restored at the age of 15, and he became a lifelong voracious reader.

He traveled across the country working at odd jobs, and spent 25 years as a longshoreman on the San Francisco waterfront, retiring at age 65.  He was completely self-taught.  He died in 1983.

He did not regard mass movements as necessarily bad.  Sometimes, he thought, they were the only means of bringing about necessary change.

Nor did he think that religious believers, patriots and political activists are necessarily fanatics.  But he did think a fanatic minority is a more powerful driving force than a reasonable, moderate majority.

The fanatic John Brown did more to end U.S. slavery than all the moderates who drew up reasonable plans for compensated gradual emancipation.

People do not join mass movements because they are poor and oppressed, but because they are frustrated, Hoffer wrote.  Joining a movement satisfies what Abraham Maslow was to call higher-level needs—the need for self-esteem, the need for inclusion, the need for hope and the need for meaning.

If you have no pride in yourself, you can take pride being part of a holy cause.  If you are lonely, you can lose your sense of separateness by uniting with others in a mass movement.

If your future seems hopeless, you can accept the promise of a golden future, either in this lie or the next.  If your life seems boring and meaningless, you can become part of a dramatic struggle for righteousness.

One category of people who never become fanatics are those who are completely embodied in a traditional way of life, Hoffer wrote.  Thinking of themselves are part of family, a community and an unquestioned way of life, they see no need for change. 

Fanatic religious zealots either want something they don’t have, or want to regain something they think they have lost.

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