Why Don’t People Revolt?

“What has to be explained is not the fact that the man who is hungry steals or the man who is exploited strikes, but why the majority of those who are hungry don’t steal and why the majority of those who are exploited don’t strike.” Wilhelm Reich – The Mass Psychology of Fascism

Presuming that people are exploited and that it is in their interests to strike back, and we think they are and it is, what can we say about this?

Reasons why people passively accept their lot in life can be split into three broad kinds of answer:

Firstly, incentives and disincentives. People are promised rewards for complying and threatened with punishment for not. The hungry do not steal for fear of the consequences of getting caught, the exploited do not strike back because they have been promised better things in the future. Though often these promises turn out to be empty, and the policeman that enforces threats turns out to be one that only lives in our heads.

Secondly, a lack of real alternatives. This lack may be objective, or it may be subjective. Objectively, an absence of effective platforms for dissent, such as social movements, trade unions, political organisations etc, will render near powerless those who seek to resist. Subjectively, people may simply be unaware that there are alternatives outside the of the way things are at present. They grow accustomed to their way of life and their social position, submissiveness and lack of will for change become engrained through force of habit. Over the generations patterns of behaviour become naturalised and knowledge of alternatives fades.

Thirdly, and most controversially; many people are simply mistaken or mislead about where their true interest lies. An individuals values – what they think is valid, realistic or fair – will be shaped to a lesser or greater degree by the values that are dominant in their society. These dominant values exercise a kind of latent power, shaping society and it’s social norms. For a certain set of ideas or values to have become socially dominant a vast amount of persuasion and social power must have already been utilised. Those that have control of the means of physical production also have a disproportionate access to the means of producing ideas, though direct or indirect control of the media, education establishments, rituals etc.

This idea, that people do not act according to their real or objective interests because these have been obscured by false consciousness or a mistaken understanding of the facts, is one that is not without contention. Usually it is argued against on the grounds that the claim makes reference to a kind of privileged access to true knowledge; someone else other than the person in question has decided that they are better determined to know the real interests of that individual then they are themselves.

However, it is possible to speak of false consciousness without claiming to have access this kind of perfect all seeing knowledge. Our desires and beliefs are not fixed, as many of the criticisms of false consciousness would imply, but can with varying degrees be changed through the influence of others and through our own reasoning and reflection. We also have many different wants and interests and in some cases because of conflicting wants, or inaccurate or incomplete information, we will not know what our real interests are. So, just as we can be mistaken and misled about anything else, we can be mistaken in the underlying beliefs that form our desires, and so ultimately we can be misled or mistaken about where out real interests lie.

It is possible to attempt to separate out ignorance of facts about the social world, from theoretical disagreements about how to explain it; and this can be done without making arrogant claims about the possession of ultimate truth. Claims about real interests are dependent on the truth of the assumptions behind them. When we make judgments about things external to ourselves we must be able to adequately justify them and the reasons we give must ring true with the facts, the same goes for judgements we make about ourselves and our values.

To be able to judge well, to be less fallible in our judgments, we need to have an adequate understanding of society, an understanding of what alternatives could be possible, and be able to judge if the risks or costs of transitioning to these alternatives are worthwhile. A recognition of the possibility of being wrong or mistaken at any of these steps does not involve making a claim privileged perfect knowledge, but is based on critical examination of factual claims about the world and the assumptions behind them.

For the exploited to effectively kick back against the exploiters it is a question of building organisations that can be used as vehicles for dissent and of questioning the assumptions behind the ideas that support the interests of the powerful against the powerless.

Music: Chris Zabriskie – Cylinder Five
Film footage: “Night Of The Living Dead” / Unknown

Further reading:
Marx and Engels “The German Ideology”
Steven Lukes “Power” / “In Defence of False Consciousness”