Saturday, June 1, 2013

Eric Hoffer and the Endgame

Been reading Eric Hoffer of late, his seminal work True Believer was published right at the end of the Second World War, and at the start of the Soviet/NATO blocs cold-war threat. For those of you who've never heard of Mr. Hoffer, I enthusiastically recommend his works.

Eric Hoffer was a hobo. That's right, he tramped the nation from border to border, riding freight trains. He had little or no formal education, preferring to educate himself, and rising to a level of intellectual work that most formal academics never manage to arrive at. He authored several works, TB being perhaps the shortest  in his canon. His book was a favorite of then President Eisenhower--who gave several copies away to members of his cabinet and congress.

Hoffer deals quite a bit with the motivations for mass movements and how the individual's psyche and perceptions of classes and rewards affect the success for failure of these movements. He makes some very blunt and unflattering remarks about why societies succumb to the irresponsibility of the mass movement and its inevitably charismatic leader.

Irresponsibility...a good word to consider when looking at why your average American can don their daily get-up and go to work for some government agency that repeatedly and viciously abuses their fellow American citizens, while disregarding the rule of law and perhaps callously ruining people's lives or even killing innocents, whether here or abroad, lest the "mission" fail.

Hoffer states that ultimately most of the functionaries who ran the concentration camps of the Third Reich, or the Gulags of the Stalinist system felt little or no empathy or guilt over their activities, despite their criminality and brutality. After all, they had joined the Utopian drive for their thousand-year-state or their worker's paradise in order to transcend their own selves and become something greater. Hoffer states that this selflessness is really a narcissistic self-delusion used to defend the self and overcome the members' feelings of failure or inadequacy. Hoffer's other references to the various personalities that become members of the masses that range from the barely supportive to the criminally fanatic are not flattering to read. Humans are not the noble savages of Rousseau in Hoffer's observations, in fact, they're not even good savages.

Among the earliest types of leadership that Hoffer describes in the steps to creating a sustaining, mass-movement are academic types in various vocations. Hoffer seems to feel that creativity is one of the individuals' greatest means to fulfillment, and that stunted or forcibly blocked creatives were gatekeepers to the violence inherent in these revolutionary movements during their early days. He also noted that creative output itself in a society drops precipitously at this stage, as the creatives and academics energies are siphoned off for the manufacturing of movement-centered art and media.

But why talk about Mr. Hoffer's theories? Well, I think that his observations remain quite applicable to what's left of American society today. There are several, competing narratives loose upon the empire, and several attempts to raise just such a mass movement within the national borders to the ends desired by whichever group is doing the work. Some of his more interesting observations concluded that when economic and political situations improve in a nation, then is the time that a reactionary movement is most likely to succeed. The abjectly poor are unlikely to rise up at all, as they are too busy trying to stay alive to cause trouble for the ruling castes, but give them a little bit of what others are perceived as having, and the genie is out of that proverbial bottle.

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