Marc Estrin : Holocaust Thinking in America I: The Authoritarian Personality

What is the limit of obedience? Illustration of the setup of a Milgram experiment (see below). Created by Wapcaplet in Inkscape / Wikimedia Commons.

Holocaust thinking in America I:
The Authoritarian Personality

My Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / September 30, 2010

[Part one of three.]

So now, in place of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America (aka Contract On America) we have the new GOP Pledge to America. Not unlike the current design, the rich are to get richer, and the poor to get sick, become homeless, starve, or shatter in endless wars.

The comparison of our American trajectory with the tactics and strategy of Germany in the late 1930s is more striking now than ever. We would do well to study this era carefully for a possible glimpse of our own future. Those targeted are no longer just our dispossessed, reviled and outcast — our “jews” — but much of the American (and of course world) population.

The attempt to exterminate European Jewry during the Nazi era was, in many ways, as unique as Jewish culture proclaims. Never before had an organized, industrial state targeted a population for complete annihilation, ruthlessly and efficiently pursued even within its “civil” codes and activities.

But to think of the Holocaust as a completely unique act, restricted to 20th century German antisemitism, is to limit it unduly, to make it unavailable as evidence and warning about tendencies in our own place, our own time.

For it would seem that every major thought pattern, every cultural institution that fueled the Nazi holocaust is present and empowered in the United States today. Safeguards against catastrophic outcomes are few and weak. “It can’t happen here”? Maybe. But with so many elements brewing together, and no visible controls to dampen the flux, there is no predicting in what direction the reaction will run.

Half a century ago, a civilization as culturally advanced as our own experienced a society-wide suspension of morality. Jews were the target. Now, the next set of domestic victims has already been chosen: the poor and unruly. Ready… aim…

The once and future perpetrators

Much of the current political agenda is dominated by what is popularly known as the “extreme right.” Clinton and Obama have been instrumental in moving the Democratic Party in that direction. The Tea Parties and religious fundamentalism nourish the “shift to the right” within the population at large.

Critics have unanimously deemed the right wing motives as “greedy” and “mean-spirited,” but such labels obscure the positive agenda involved — an agenda described in most detail by the Frankfurt School in its attempt to analyze the roots of German fascism. Then and now; the descriptions are eerily alike.

It is reasonable to assume that Obama, the Clintons, Bush and Joe&Jane Six-Pack are nice enough folks who love their children and grandchildren, and hope to pass on to them a better world. What is it, then, that drives them to outlandish and seemingly heartless proposals concerning the poor, often themselves?

The authoritarian personality

In each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moulding of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. — Captain Ahab

While differing in detail, such right-wing positions are driven by belief systems characteristic of what The Frankfurt School called “the Authoritarian Personality,” whose main characteristic is the urgent need for order. Freud, Fromm, and Reich unearthed the psycho-dynamics of weak ego-structure which underlay it, while Adorno and Horkheimer analyzed the social repression which left its authoritarian marks on the individual soul. When ALLES IN ORDNUNG becomes the highest value,the consequences are predictable. For the authoritarian personality:

  1. Powerful leaders are needed to keep society in line and restrict it to conventional, middle-class values. Exaggerated assertions of toughness and strength become the norm. Trickle-down theories are designed to protect the powerful — in the interest of all. Though greed and lust for power may be involved, they are rationalized by an appeal to the general good.
  2. Democracy becomes a threat and must be limited. In The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, Samuel Huntington warns about the consequences of an “excess of democracy”:

    The arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are, in short, limited… The effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups… Marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.

    A need to control unpredictable “excess” democracy has guided American foreign and economic policy throughout this century. The pattern of marginalizing peasant populations and supporting dictatorial strongmen is likely driven as much by rage for order and fear of chaos as by the selfish need to maximize profits — which profits might be even greater should the general standard of living be raised. So great is the need for predictable order that maximal profits are sacrificed.

  3. Individualism becomes suspect, a negative value to be stamped out. “Difference” means unpredictability, and fear of an unpredictable, uncontrollable “Other” spawns all the “isms” which rampage today: racism, sexism, classism, anti-semitism, anti-immigrant, anti-muslim rage, xenophobia. Nature itself becomes an uncertain enemy to be conquered and subdued.
  4. The psycho-sexual chaos at the core of an authoritarian personality simultaneously fascinates and repels. Rigid moralism embracing stereotypical values seems the most secure protection against anarchy and chaos. There is exaggerated concern with and denunciation of libidinal art and sexual “goings-on.” At the same time, unconscious emotional impulses are projected outward, and the world is seen as a wild and dangerous place in which worst-case scenarios abound.
  5. Fear and guilt about chaotic thoughts within and anarchy without is so potentially threatening that psychic numbing is a typical response, with emotional dissociation from the consequences of action. Knee-jerk “patriotism” in response to moral questions is an effective defense mechanism. Yellow ribbons blindfold the eyes against mass incineration and live burial. The story of the Palestinians targeted by U.S. weapons must not be told. Such defensive control of information minimizes compassion for victims.
  6. A culture of punishment follows hard upon. Offenders against order must be strictly punished. Dominance and submission becomes crucial. The very same heartmind is both pro-life and pro-death penalty. But the sanctity of life is secondary: the important thing is punishment. Tender-mindedness is for “bleeding-heart liberals.”

While no political leader or follower may display every characteristic above, they are all on fine collective display in the current reactionary Zeitgeist — as they were in Nazi Germany.

Is it just that “people are no damn good”, or is their behavior created by social conditions surrounding them?

The Milgram evidence

In her study of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt noted that the greatest problem the Nazis faced was “how to overcome… the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering.”

Most of the German perpetrators were “normal” people, people who would not be picked up by any questionnaire or psychiatric screen. They were by and large not sadists or moral degenerates or even political fanatics — yet they became conscious collaborators in the process of mass murder.

How was it possible to create torturers out of next door neighbors? (How could our clean-cut young boys napalm women and children?) What about that animal pity?

In the early Sixties, A Yale psychologist named Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments which sought to clarify these problems. The basic question was narrowed to “if an experimenter tells a subject to act with increasing severity against another person, under what conditions will the subject comply, and under what conditions will he disobey?”

Subjects were recruited from all walks of life to “help us complete a study of memory and learning.” An actor-scientist greeted pairs of volunteers, and lots were drawn to pick who would be the”teacher”and who would be the”learner.” The subject would always choose the “teacher” slip (all the slips said “teacher”); the other “volunteer” was a plant who then became the “learner”/victim.

The “scientist” explained that there has been some association of punishment with learning, but that there had never been any quantitative studies on how much punishment would give the best results.

After orientation, the “learner” was strapped into a chair in the next room, and an electrode glued to his wrist. The “teacher” could see and communicate with him via a glass panel and microphone. In front of the “teacher” was a bogus control panel consisting of 30 switches enabling him to deliver shocks from 15 to 450 volts in 15 volt increments.

The groups of switches were marked Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock. Two switches after this last designation were simply marked XXX.

Milgram conceived many ingenious variations to examine different parameters, but the basic design was this: the “teacher” was read groups of word pairs to the “learner,” and then ask him to correctly identify the pairing word from lists of four. If the “learner” made a mistake, the “teacher” was to administer a shock. For each mistake, the “teacher” was instructed to “move one level higher on the shock generator.”

The victim (who, of course, was feeling no shock at all) greeted the increasing “voltage levels” with a full range of response, indicating no discomfort until the 75 volt shock was administered. At 120 volts he would shout to the experimenter that the shocks were becoming painful. Painful groans at 135 volts. At 150 volts. he would cry out, “Experimenter, get me out of here! I won’t be in the experiment any more! I refuse to go on!”

By 180 volts, “I can’t stand the pain,” and by 270, agonizing screams. After 300 volts he would no longer provide answers to the test questions. The “teacher” was told that no answer constituted a wrong answer, and was instructed to raise the shock level.

How far would these “teacher”/subjects go? In spite of there being no coercion or threat (as in Nazi Germany), and without any animosity toward the victim (unlike Nazi Germany), these average Americans far, far exceeded the expectations of all psychologists in their obedient compliance with instructions.

Despite the fact that many questioned or even protested what they were doing, a substantial proportion continued to the last last level of shock despite the “learners’” screams. Almost two-thirds of the subjects — ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes — were “obedient subjects,” willing to go to almost any length at the command of an authority. Their explanations at post-experiment interview echoed those of Adolf Eichmann — “I was just doing my job. I was doing what I was told. I was only doing my duty.”

Milgram was profoundly disturbed by his findings, (as were many members of the scientific community who attacked him personally).

What is the limit of such obedience? At many points we attempted to establish a boundary. Cries from the victim were inserted: they were not good enough. The victim claimed heart trouble; subjects continued to shock him on command. The victim pleaded to be let free, and his answers no longer registered on the signal box; subjects continued to shock him.

At the outset we had not conceived that such drastic procedures would be needed to generate disobedience, and each step was added only as the ineffectiveness of the earlier techniques became clear. The final effort to establish a limit was the Touch-Proximity condition [where the “learner” sat, screaming, shoulder to shoulder with the subject]. But the very first subject in this condition subdued the victim on command, and proceeded to the highest shock level. A quarter of the subjects in this condition performed similarly.

The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature or — more specifically — the kind of character produced in America democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.

In spite of Milgram’s despair, the findings did have their bright side. A number of experiments were done in which the subjects were exposed to several experimenters who disagreed among themselves and argued about continuing the shocks. Another series was performed not at Yale, with its aura of authority, but in a minimal office, under the auspices of the fictitious, unknown, “Bridgeport Research Associates.” A third series was performed in which the “teachers” were not instructed to increase the shock level with each wrong answer, but could choose their own levels throughout the experiment.

The outcomes of these series was illuminating: given any hint of disagreement among the authorities, subjects immediately discarded their slavish obedience, and were no longer willing to engage in behavior they found morally questionable. When authority became questionable (“Bridgeport” vs. Yale), compliance dropped significantly. And without prompting from authority, “teachers” maintained shocks well under the discomfort level of the victim.

The casting off of “animal pity” was sustainable only under seamless monolithic authority. For all its fragility, it seems that it is not human nature per se that is malevolent, but that human malevolence, at least in part, is socially constructed. Under the right system, even here and now in the United States, obedience to authority can prevail against the “better instincts” of the population. The trouble is that such a system is currently alive and well throughout the land.

The system there and here and then and now

It is commonly assumed that outbreaks of bestial violence — the Holocaust, or what we have recently seen in Rwanda, Afghanistan or Palestine — are the result of primitive eruptions into a civilization insufficient to contain them. If people could only become “more civilized,” there would be no such behavior. But what if our civilization itself were the problem — not the solution? More civilization would mean more such crimes. Is such a proposition simply inappropriate self-hatred?

Again and again we have to confront the difficult fact that Nazi Germany was an advanced industrial culture quite like our own. The death machines were put into operation by people quite like us, living in comparable surroundings. Certified architects and engineers in well-lit rooms drew up plans for crematoria. Government bureaucrats, some trained in Kant and Hegel, purchased tickets for each passenger in the cattle cars.

Had there been computers, there would have been excellent data bases. Nazi soldiers played Beethoven sonatas to entertain the troops, to lift their spirits and help them return to guard duty at the camps. Bayer made superb aspirin using slave labor. Out of this modern, rational society, with a history of the highest culture, the Holocaust was born. Can we ever understand this? What can it tell us about our own situation?

One of the most crucial insights here came from a man who died well before Hitler came to power. Contemplating the industrialization of late 19th century Germany, Max Weber, “the father of sociology,” came to the conclusion that “Reason” — the ideal of the Enlightenment — was evolving dangerously into Zweckrationalität — instrumental reason, reason driven by a goal. In the service of its goals, modern society was becoming efficiently bureaucratic and scientific, but was losing its sense of values. In fact, “value-free” had become a test of objectivity and scientific legitimacy, as technique replaced moral responsibility.

This century has certainly proven Weber correct. Marxists and postmodern thinkers have taken Weber many steps further, as they deconstruct the goals we have inherited, and the stories we tell ourselves. Whose goals are they? What corpses lie between the lines in our story of “Progress”? If society is a garden, who decides on who gets weeded?

The important point is that Weber’s analysis of modern society — clearly increasingly applicable as the years push on — in no way excludes the possibility of another Nazi state. Nothing in the rules of the reigning instrumental rationality would disqualify Holocaust methods of social engineering, nor would its actions even seem improper. After all, social problems must be solved.

Milgram, too, found Weberian mechanisms at play in his subjects. To avoid confronting the victim’s pain, his “teachers” became absorbed in the technical aspects of voltage control and memory testing. They also demonstrated a kind of “counter-anthropomorphism,” denying any human element in a human-generated situation.

“The experiment requires that you continue” was often sufficient explanation to overcome any hesitations. “Scientific truth” as defined by “authority” was a goal so persuasive that its perceived legitimacy overwhelmed humane behavior.

Outside the laboratory, for instance in the military, we find parallel mechanisms at work. Boot camp is not so much a training in military technique as it is in absolute acceptance of monolithic authority. Patriotism requires such acceptance. Once in the field, attention to technical details blinds the perpetrator to the effects of his violence.

The bombing sequence in Dr. Strangelove is a brilliant satire on the efficient calm of men about to destroy the world. Violence is turned into a technique, free from emotion and purely rational, even reasonable. Similar comparisons can easily be made with the instrumental rationality of the corporate board room, where the lives of millions are part of the calculus of maximizing profit.

More to come.

[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

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3 Responses to Marc Estrin : Holocaust Thinking in America I: The Authoritarian Personality

  1. Anonymous says:

    And let’s be aware that the holocaust continues as we wage wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Africa, and employ wage slaves in India and China. Our collective denial is palpable.

  2. Didier says:

    You are getting all mixed up. Such wars are bullshits, but certainly not holocausts

  3. Estrin writes so well and is so insightful. I look forward to more.
    Above all he is trying to analyze the wave of madness we are observing.

    I’m not sure how the various strands of his approach will come together. Let me comment on a few matters that interest me. I hope he will improve on what I write.

    1. The greatest problem the military has had was getting soldiers to want to kill other people. But, as noted, it is possible motivate them to do so. The Pentagon has spent huge amounts studying personality and how to manipulate it. The work of Colonel Michael Aquino suggests how successful they have become.

    Signs of this progress are found in the recent stories of soldiers taking body parts of murdered civilians as souvenirs. And there are the ghastly pictures.

    Conditioning to hate and kill can overcome other training. For decades we have known that the most effective interrogation techniques did not involve actual physical torture. Yet, we had all these terrible incidents carried out by military police in Iraq and Afghanistan. My guess is that conditioning to harm and kill overcame what men were taught about interrogation.

    This raises another question: Can people’s primitive and prelogical instincts for hatred and harm be easily turned off. Therein lies the answer to Estrin’s comment about whether safeguards against violence will work. He was probably thinking about institutional and cultural safeguards. In that context, I agree. They cannot be trusted.

    2. The next question is about whether we have enough psychological knowledge and skill to harness the destructive impulses of mass movements. It stands to reason that the military and defense people do not want to waste great amounts of money keeping order at home. They want to continue using the approach described by Antonio Gramsci.

    But, if an extremist and violence prone movement gets loose, can it be controlled. I don’t know the answer. I do know that the various militia and right wing extremist movements were literally crawling with federal agents for a few decades. Most of them were psyops people. One was borrowed from Germany’s best psyops operation. Yet, they did not succeed in shutting down Tim McVeigh’s operation.

    3. I too have given a lot of thought to Reich, whose work laid the groundwork for Adorno. I see the authoritarian personality in both right-wing populism and in political fundamentalism.

    Sexual repression and strong father households were important. They produced a lot of people who need simplicity solutions and cannot deal with realities when things get tough. The Nazi-leading Konrad Lorenz wrote well on this. Maybe most people are wired in such a way as to fear reality and seek emotional security in stuff like the Tea Bagger rants.

    On the other hand, the sexual repression sometimes resulted in strong secret reactions against accepted mores. It is as though there is a volcanic anger that has to be released and spread some destruction. Any number of Nazi leaders talked about the beauties of family values but completely abandoned them in their private lives. We see this also in the US. If you do some research you will encounter the possibility that there is a tendency for right wing authoritarian leaders to be involved is secret child sex rings and the like. There was also a lot of this among the Nazi leadership. There has been more than a little of this in intelligence and military circles here. I’m not sure what it all means, but I don’t want these people to have much power.

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