Jumping Frog - Boiling Frog

How To Sap People’s Life Force In 3 Easy Steps

“The cold reality of dictatorship grinds on human dignity, saps your life force and leaves only capitulation and emptiness behind.”

–Viktor Orbán, October 2016

Yes, he is doing it. No, he wasn’t being ironic.

He genuinely believes himself to be an anti-communist warrior. It just appears that neither Russia, nor central planning, state capture, a one-party system or debilitating cronyism are on his list of what constitutes “communism”.

But he is as good at inducing the cold reality of oppression as any dictator in history. Sure, he hasn’t got anyone killed. He doesn’t need to. Firstly, it will be done by overzealous foot soldiers eager to proactively go above and beyond without being asked. But more importantly, an autocrat doesn’t need to physically crack down on dissent every time it emerges – if people have already internalized oppression. And Hungary is a prime example of that.

In short you need a sinister combination of terror and welfare – administered with brutal timing – to complete citizen disempowerment and to make them capitulate helplessly.

How to sap society’s life force to cement yourself in power?

Firstly, you need to 1) exercise terror. But it can’t go on forever.

When people are approaching breaking point you have to move on to a more cost-effective, 2) conditional harassment – during which you only abuse your citizens if they resist. This phase is also colloquially known as “bad cop”.

Lastly, when they have stopped moving altogether, complete their capitulation by 3) showing fake concern (“good cop”). Like an introduction of an unfounded welfare state that pulls the rug of self-sufficiency and the sense of competence from under their feet.

With these 3 easy steps you can demolish the sense of agency, control, and trust among your citizens (now we can call them subjects) and enjoy their non-resistance for generations to come.

Step 1

– Continuous Harassment (Constant, Unprovoked Terror) –

Let’s start the story in 1956. 60 years ago this October Hungarians revolted against the Soviet regime. This was the first crack on the Soviet block and the first sign that Eastern Europeans may not buy into the official story of “Soviet liberation” and had enough of it, thank you very much. It was resistance of dignity. To quote Time magazine:

“For three incredible days in Hungary last week the flames of liberty and revenge against tyranny rose high. It almost seemed as if they could go on burning…

“Rebel patriots stormed recklessly toward freedom, Communist henchmen reaped the frightful wrath they had sowed. The most hotly hated of the rebels’ targets were the Soviet-controlled Hungarian secret police. These were cut down as ruthlessly as they themselves had murdered countless anti-communists. Soviet occupation troops felt the national fury.

“Daredevil teenagers burned up their tanks with “Molotov cocktails” until Soviet columns evacuated Budapest, leaving their dead behind them. Most of the Hungarian army, siding with the rebels, stood off Soviet troops throughout the country. Workers not engaged in the fighting went out on a general strike against Communism.”


Erika Szeles (15) with a Soviet rifle. This photo was taken in November 1956 by a Danish photographer. By the time she appeared at the cover of magazines and became the face of the revolution, however, she had died a hero’s death.  

Over 3000 civilians had died in the battle but for a few weeks it seemed like the insurgents might actually win and push the Russians out of the country. By mid-November, however, the Soviet army had returned and launched an all-out assault:

The Soviets struck back with old-time Stalinist savagery. They poured reinforcements in, ringing Budapest. They encircled the Hungarian army in the provinces. At the end of the week, the Budapest radio burst out brokenly: “Russian MiG fighters are over Budapest. . . . The Russian infantry division is going toward the parliament. . . . Gyor is completely surrounded. . . . Pecs was attacked. . . . The Russians are using phosphorous bullets. . . . We shall die for Hungary and Europe. . . . Any news about help? Quickly, quickly, quickly . . .”

Then Budapest fell.

7 years of crackdown followed.

It started with hundreds of executions, show trials, and demonstrations of state power and cruelty. Over 20 thousands of political prisoners were put behind bars, 18 thousand sent to work camps, languishing there for years. They were tortured, their families harassed, but it was not just them. Everyone dreaded the black car in the night. Oppression was complete and omnipresent. Over 200 thousand people (2% of the population) have left the country. Those who stayed, however, froze into the cold reality of a dictatorship. Not even loud declarations of loyalty could help them against the revenge of an insecure regime. In other words, they were helpless and had no control over whether they would be attacked.

Inducing this state of mind  – called learned helplessness (the absence of the sense of control) – is an authoritarian power tool. It is also the first step to demolish resistance and with it the will to live, thrive and prosper. This is how it works.

The original learned helplessness theory comes from an experiment by Richard L. Solomon who had trained dogs to induce the sense of helplessness and the resulting inaction by placing them in an environment where they were not in control to alleviate discomfort.

In his experiment, dogs were placed in a box divided by half by a chest-high barrier. An electric shock would come on and the dog would learn that jumping over the barrier makes the shock go away.dog-learned-helplessness

After repeated shocks healthy dogs have learned without difficulty that jumping over the barrier relieves them from unpleasant shocks. Except for dogs that have first been exposed to another experiment, in which there was nothing they could do to alleviate the shocks. The dogs that have been exposed to the first experiment acted helplessly in the second one as well and didn’t learn to jump to safety, or just very slowly.

They stayed put and didn’t even try. The sooner in their development the experiment came, the deeper an impression it left and the less likely the dogs were to eventually unlearn the sense of helplessness (to discover that jumping over the barrier alleviates the discomfort). It affected not just their ability to discover and learn (cognitive deficit), it caused motivational deficit as well.

Researchers established that it was the uncontrollability of their environment that made the dogs feel helpless, not the discomfort of the shocks. The victim of such conditioning learns to expect the so called response-outcome independence, the feeling that nothing in their power can change the situation. That they have no control. The resulting motivational, cognitive and emotional impairment is widely researched, partly because it is a symptom of depression. (Maier-Seligman 1976)

The inability to control one’s environment has repeatedly been shown to create not only anger and frustration but, eventually, deep and often insurmountable depression. In a sense, inducing learned helplessness makes a person lose his aspirations and reduces them to survival mindset. With all their heart these people wish, hope, pray that things wouldn’t get worse (because wish, hope and pray is all they can do) but have no actual means to influence the situation. (But the effect runs even deeper. Many of the dogs used in Solomon’s studies died or became severely ill shortly thereafter. Turns out, survival mindset kills – but that’s the story of another post.)

But continuous crackdown is not optimal for inducing helplessness in the long run. Prolonged, unprovoked harassment is prone to trigger a fighting spirit and the sense that there is nothing to lose. This is why – after an initial training of response-outcome independence – a system designed to suppress action and resistance is most effective if it only punishes action when the victims try to resist. This way, it can achieve deeper helplessness and compliance than continuous terror -at a lower cost.

“Sustained long enough, a strong fear of anything vague or unknown induces regression. On the other hand, materialization of the fear is likely to come as a relief. The subject finds that he can hold out and his resistance is strengthened.”

(C.I.A. Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983)

And this is why blind oppression doesn’t work as a power tool forever. It needs to evolve.

Step 2

– Interactive Attack (aka. The “Bad Cop”) –

In 1963 the Hungarian regime changed course. The remaining political prisoners were silently, unceremoniously let home but promised to find themselves in jail again if they ever make a move. Perhaps intuitively, the regime understood that continuous harassment of the population will only take them this far and that any more hard crackdown is prone to trigger renewed resistance of desperation.

The psychological equivalent would be a more recent experiment conducted by researchers at Waseda University, Tokyo. They created a method to induce depression in rats (in order to test antidepressants). They used a robotic rat to terrorize the real rats into depression. (The relevance of peer-induced helplessness as opposed to just any type of abuse cannot be overstated – but it’s the subject of another post.) In short, the robotic rat harasses the real rats until they exhibit signs of depression, signaled by a lack of activity.

But the exact method of harassment made a difference. If rats were only attacked when they tried to move their depression was the deepest. 

The robotic rats were programmed with three different behaviors: “chasing,” “continuous attack” and “interactive attack.” Each one was designed to induce a different level of stress in rats. Chasing stresses the rats out, while the attacks create an environment of pain and fear. Researchers set the robots loose on two groups of 12 young rats once a day for five days in continuous attack mode.

Then they have split them in two groups. Group A were further exposed to continuous attacks, while group B was exposed to a new kind of harassment called interactive attack. In the interactive attack the rat is only attacked if it moves. The intermittent, conditional form of attack proved to be the most stressful.

By changing to this new strategy the Soviet regime had deepened the sense of helplessness in Hungarians.The process of debilitation entered its second phase: the interactive (or conditional) attack. This phase is like having an abusive father that only beats you when you move. And the worst thing about it: it conditions you to blame yourself, or those who move, for the beating that follows.

The psychology of torture is also elaborate on the subject of induced helplessness – on humans. Seligman’s work turned out to have inspired many, including the intelligence establishment. His techniques were reverse engineered to orchestrate the torture of detainees in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq. (See the findings of the report: Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program)

This, however, is no recent development. The C.I.A.’s “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual” has described various non-violent means to induce this state (then called psychological regression) as early as 1983.

The purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist. Regression is basically a loss of autonomy, a reversion to an earlier behavior level. As the subject regresses, his learned personality traits fall away in reverse chronological order. He begins to lose the capacity to carry out the highest creative activities, to deal with complex situations, to copy with stressful interpersonal relationships, or to cope with repeated frustrations.”

(C.I.A. Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983)

The report set forth the so-called D.D.D method of interrogation, for Debility, Dependency and Dread. By Debility they meant physical weakness, while Dread meant intense fear and anxiety. “Many psychologists consider the threat of inducing debility to be more effective than debility itself”, said the manual, and they also meant to ensure the sense of dependency, where the prisoner “is helplessly dependent upon the “questioner” for the satisfaction of all basic needs”.

In other words, once the cruelty of the abuser (the government) is established, fear from repercussions softens your brain more effectively than repercussions themselves. It is also cost-effective.

People released from prison after 7 years of torture were to be stupid to rock the boat. They also taught the lesson to their children, and perhaps even felt genuine anger when they saw the next generation contemplating political resistance.

Everyone is really smart today and can recite that “Communists: baaaad”. But trust me, in that environment, slowly boiling for years, your livelihood and life at constant risk and no one to share your thoughts with, seeing no way out, the end of the regime nowhere in sight – you would have probably reacted the same. Back then, all they needed was a straw to clutch on to, a justification, no matter how lame, for capitulation.

In Hungary’s case it was the premature welfare state of the 1980s. Because welfareism weakens the sense of control just as oppression does.

Step 3

– The “Good Cop” –

It is a common mistake to believe that abuse alone will break resistance. But it’s more logical-sounding than a realistic assumption. Truth is, abuse must be paired with kindness, delivered at the right moment in order to erode the last bits of resistance and to foster cooperation, even love for the abuser. After all, the addition of a caring mother figure can only facilitate our regression into infantile dependence that had been started by fatherly terror.

In Hungary’s case it was the premature welfare state of the 1980s. Welfareism weakens the sense of control just as oppression does, but it is not so obvious. The lack of control over one’s life can be positive as well as negative. Having no control over avoiding negative things (being harassed or receiving electric shocks) or achieving positive ones are equally damaging to one’s sense of agency and dignity. They are both a form of helplessness

Many societies have suffered the loss of control under Soviet domination, but mostly of the negative kind. They’ve experienced the ‘bad cop’ of communist oppression, the political harassment, the surveillance, and the abusive, hostile leadership – but most of them didn’t experience the ‘good cop’ to finish the job. It was pure oppression from the beginning that never morphed into the slimy, counterfeit care of a corrupting welfare state – as Hungary did in its last decade of communism.

While Poland battled a nasty and unforgivable martial law Hungarians were silenced with the tasteless carrot or the premature welfare state of the 80s, financed by IMF-loans. It was called “Goulash communism” and tragically, it was a source of pride that we lived in the “happiest barrack”.

Because the Good Cop also provides a justification for compliance

1) It is for our good.

2) Others are doing it too

3) You had no choice

Consider the “advanced interrogation methods” applied in Guantanamo (colloquially known as torture) designed to break down the victim’s mental resistance and facilitate capitulation. In order to complete the psychological torture, the interrogator should suggest a justification for cooperation and inaction (for example that others are equally broken). According to the torture guide:

“As soon as possible, the “questioner” should provide the subject with the rationalization that he needs for giving in and cooperating. This rationalization is likely to be elementary, an adult version of a childhood excuse such as:

“They made you do it.”

“All the other boys are doing it.”

“You’re really a good boy at heart.”

In other words, the system must provide some excuse for compliance and dropping moral considerations. Erode the trust is other people (social capital), allow the subject to blame it on the system, while help maintain his illusion of integrity by disassociating his actions from his moral standing or by inducing moral relativism and cynicism.

Goulash communism even offered what they called “limited entrepreneurship” – a system in which you had full employment – but went on to make some extra cash after work (using company resources). You could even buy a vacation home or have your own garden, while healthcare and education were free, entitlements universal, and your pension taken care of. In other words, entrepreneurship for kindergartners. (It has done lasting damage in the perception of entrepreneurship and markets.)

The welfare largess was debilitating and it killed the last bits of moral and resistance. Who desires liberties when finally, after so much abuse and hardship, safety seemed to have arrived? Both economic safety and safety from government harassment. Relief is easily mistaken for happiness, just as an unsustainable state largess can be mistaken as our own achievement.

At the end of communism freedom wasn’t fought, it just happened to us when the Soviet Union imploded. Liberties weren’t really missed by many, they were just enacted in the constitution and fell into our laps. Of course, there was a lot of talking about freedom and independence. Lip service was paid to checks and balances but no one really understood the relevance. If people wanted anything from the West it was the symptoms of freedom: being able to buy Gorenje appliances and western style wealth. And democratisers thought that the confusion was harmless, and it would never come back to haunt them.

Today, nostalgia for Goulash communism is cementing Orbán in power

…and he knows it. Keeps mentioning it. He had also masterfully triggered the frozen helplessness and inaction that had been internalised by previous generations – but apparently not forgotten. And this is not to mention that another 500 thousand citizens have left the country (5% of population – conservative estimate) since he came into power in 2010.

Far from being against central planning, corruption, or the silencing of the opposition and the press, Orbán has mastered it all. Because despite his empty anti-communist rhetoric, Orbán has recreated the false illusion of being taken care of – as well as compliance and non-resistance. A society frozen into the fear from conditional attack is a society happy to believe justifications.

And if his regime doesn’t seem to deliver life improvement (central planning and wholesale privatization of public money rarely does), it is the scapegoat’s fault. (Actually, it used to be more humane to kill animals as scapegoats – pointing the blame on humans is so much worse.) If Orbán’s regime leaves you poorer and more exposed it couldn’t be helped, it is because of sabotage. Of the capitalists, the Russians, the EU or the foreign agents sewn into moleskin.

For Hungarians, the state has been the abusive father but also the protective mother – and it is debilitating. These techniques are used in torture to facilitate helplessness and regression. It would be surprising if it didn’t have a similar impact on a society. Some react by jumping the border. Others slowly freeze into helplessness – just as the proverbial frog that boiled.

This was the first post in our new series on the slow buildup of authoritarianism, called Jumping Frog – Boiling Frog, introducing people who have left as well as people who stayed. (Although, given the nature of helplessness, a slowly freezing frog would have been a better metaphor) 

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21 thoughts on “How To Sap People’s Life Force In 3 Easy Steps

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  18. I was waiting for the fedora tip at the end of the article. Libertarians seem to think that if something is wrong, everything that is part of that wrong system is wrong too. For example, when Saddam Hussein, a dictator, established universal free schooling up to the highest education levels and hundreds of thousands learned to read in the years following the initiation of the program and his government also supported families of soldiers, granted free hospitalization to everyone, and gave subsidies to farmers, and Iraq created one of the most modernized public-health systems in the Middle East, all of that was just sucking the life force out of people. Also since welfare is obviously repressive because dictatorships are repressive and that means both are part of the same evil repression according to libertarian logic 101, these Iraqis weren’t really alive even if they were living better. No that health increase was actually a disguise for the evil repressive increase in Iraq.


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