A striking passage from Erich Fromm’s essay ‘On the Feeling of Powerlessness’ [PDF], originally published in 1937 in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung:
“The fact that the bourgeois person is unaware of the psychic impulses that
determine his behaviour finds its counterpart in the fact that he is unaware of those
forces that determine economic development in a market-regulated economy and
that they appear to him as impenetrable forces of fate. In the current
market-economy society, in contrast with other economic models, understanding
its functioning requires a particular specialized knowledge of political economy.
Similarly, psychoanalysis is required in order to understand how the individual
personality functions, in other words, to understand oneself.
The feeling of powerlessness is intensified in the extreme by the fact that both the complicated processes of an economic and political nature as well as psychic processes are indecipherable. Even when the bourgeois person believes he knows what is
happening, this illusion changes nothing of the fact that he is almost completely
lacking in any orientation about those fundamental forces at work in society and
within himself. He sees hundreds of details, hangs on to one or the other and
attempts to understand the totality from this one vantage point, only to be
continually surprised and confused by new particulars. Since correct insight into the key forces and constellations is the first condition for effective action and
influence over one’s own destiny as well as society’s, the consequence of
ignorance and a lack of insight is to render the individual powerless. And this
powerlessness is also registered by him internally, even if he desperately tries to
defend himself against registering it with all sorts of possible illusions.
The lack of a correct social theory and, as far as the individual is concerned, psychological theory is an important source of the feeling of powerlessness. Theory is a
prerequisite for action. But the existence of a theory, and even its easy accessibility,
is not enough on its own to enable people to take effective action. The European
situation shows strikingly just how fatalistically people resign themselves to their
lot, although millions of them possess an, in principle, correct theory of social
processes. The same dynamic is also recurrently evident whenever theoretical
knowledge of psychological processes does so little to help people change these.
For people in whom the feeling of powerlessness is present, theory essentially
holds no vital interest. Since they do not expect to be able to change anything, the
insight that describes how one could change something also appears bland and
insignificant. Even if one has insight, it remains abstract knowledge, a cultural
artefact like historical dates or poems that one learned in school, or – a
A remarkable documentary (banned and censored at the time of its production), on anti/racism and working class movements featuring Colin Prescod, Darcus Howe, Claudia Jones, A. Sivanandan, and some great footage & analysis.
How long does a crisis take? The inhabitants of the United Kingdom, as well as international witnesses following the events (or lack thereof) of the past three years with a mix of Schadenfreude, bemusement or anxiety, may well be forgiven for asking themselves this question. Irrespective of sober quantitative forecasts of economic doom attendant on a ‘no deal’ exit from the European Union a growing number of people seem inclined to opt for the fanciful but compelling idea of a clean break, if nothing else to ‘get it over with’. When it’s not just the time of policy or planning, of budgets and bureaucracies, but of your everyday life and psyche that comes to be occupied by a political issue, the attractions of finality are considerable. A sense of this public mood, not to mention of the animal spirits of revanchist nationalism that often accompany it, lies behind Boris Johnson’s sub-Machiavellian strategy, hatched with his volatile advisor Dominic Cummings, to “move fast and break things” – things here meaning parliamentary sovereignty and constitutional customs. As that strategy falters – faced with legal challenges, parliamentary resistance and the transparency of its own bluff and bluster – life in the United Kingdom oscillates between a grinding, powerless sense of stasis and stagnation (Brexit never-ending) and the anxiety that protracted crisis will segue into catastrophe, on October 31 (what the more delirious irredentists fantasise as ‘independence day’) or sometime thereafter. Between the ongoing grind and the oncoming crash, one can also find excitement and distraction in the small events and pseudo-events that populate the time of Brexit: parliamentary rebellions, legal opinions, ministerial leaks, Tory expulsions, Labour resignations, or Johnson’s gaffes.
Read the whole post here. Many thanks to Mike Ma and the Social Justice Blog.
This is the transcript of an interview from the weekend edition of Efimerida ton Syntakton (The Editors’ Newspaper), on the relative fortunes of the far right and the radical left, and the fate of SYRIZA.
The far right, unlike the left, has managed to win millions of fans all over the world, mostly around reactionary ideas. How do you interpret this difference and how do you explain the shrinking of the left?
I think that four elements play to the comparative favour of the contemporary far right when it comes to its capacity for electoral mobilisation and influence over public discourse. First, it shares with the history of ‘conservative revolutionaries’ a particularly effective combination of systemic continuity and anti-systemic rhetoric. Widespread discontent with the status quo can be channelled into policies or slogans that do not demand any substantive transformations in relations of power or production. This leads to its second ‘comparative advantage’, namely that unlike the anti-systemic politics of the Left, and notwithstanding some opposition from fractions of capital uneasy with protectionist and ‘anti-globalist’ gestures, it will always find considerable support (and funding) among the moneyed classes. Third, it is able very effectively to organize resentment and identify enemies (along ethnic, racial, gendered and other lines) which it can paint as standing in the way of a restoration of affluence or order. Fourth, it has no compunction about deploying an incoherent variety of discourses aimed at separate and even incompatible constituencies – combining the acceleration of neoliberalism with claims to defend ‘national’ working-classes, devastating welfare while depicting itself as the champion of pensioners, etc. Continue reading
“In Grimsby, it was very clear there was a huge disconnect between people’s idea of what power was in the town, and the reality of it. To me, the reality was that power had left the town but had not gone to Europe. It had gone to various unaccountable organizations headquartered elsewhere, many of them commercial companies. But in the way the port had been privatized once and then privatized again, it had become this sort of private barrier standing between the town and the sea, which was once its lifeline. What I found fascinating was that people’s imaginative representation of the situation in that town hadn’t really caught up with this; they didn’t really seem to have found a myth to articulate it. It seemed to me that the myth that would have been much more helpful for them would have been the Robin Hood story, rather than the St. George story, in the sense that they were captives of absentee landlords who extracted rents from them, rather than them being simply under the power of some simple tyranny that could be slain with a single sword.”
James Meek, LARB
This is the text of a talk delivered at the ICA launch of the new edition of Allan Sekula’s 1995 book Fish Story. It was a pleasure to share the stage with Laleh Khalili (author of the excellent new preface), Gail Day, Jeroen Verbeek and Ina Steiner.
I want to begin at the very end of Fish Story, and end that is anything but a conclusion, with its final photograph, its final image and its final text. The photograph depicts a somewhat decrepit pier, extending across almost the entirety of the frame, behind which are docked two ships, and which is dominated by an elevated bridge on high white pylons.
The caption reads: “The guided missile destroyer Chandler and an impounded ship used to unsuccessfully attempt to smuggle undocumented immigrants from southern provinces of China to the United States, San Diego harbour. July 1994.” Continue reading
This brief essay was published in 2013 in the third print issue of the great online film journal La Furia Umana.
In Oshima’s critical writings from the period around Night and Fog in Japan (1960), two related terms stand out, tension and instability. The ‘history of bad faith’ which, according to Harry Harootunian, constitutes the human material of the film saturates the physiognomy of the actors. But it is also, primarily even, borne by the camera, in sequence shots that linger on the wracked faces of the militant students, or their later, drained selves. Continue reading
A recent talk on one of the more pernicious manifestations of the “poor man’s cognitive mapping” in the political field.