Powerless to map, or, theory is not enough

René Magritte. L'Apparition (The Apparition). Paris, 1928 | MoMA

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
Weltanschauung.”

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