The kind of helplessness that you internalize in your daily life comes in many shapes. It is involuntarily induced by state measures even at the best of times – but purposely accelerated by unscrupulous strongmen when you are ready to be slowly boiled.
Here are a few examples.
1. Economic helplessness
Imagine that you are playing a video game.
You have no idea of the rules, but you try to figure them out. You are pressing keys, but they don’t seem to behave the way you assumed they would. They are not consistent. Some of them don’t work. And there are way too many of them.
Your scores are going up and down (but mostly down) for no discernible reason. If you don’t do anything, you die – but you don’t know what to do to get ahead. You don’t even know what the game is for. Is it a princess you can sleep with? Is it a diamond to collect? How many worlds are there and is there an end?
Maybe you have to jump and bump your head into a rock, and when a mushroom comes out of it, you have to walk through it. Bumping your head against the clouds, however, does nothing. Some of the green stuff is background. Some of it make shit happen. But you don’t know which one is which and sometimes they do the opposite of what you expect of them.
To make things even more frustrating you see other players succeeding. But how?
You keep telling yourself that they must be cheating, but you’re not actually sure. Maybe they’re just better. Maybe they have figured out the rules and you are just a dumb loser.
Is it just you – or is the game really not doable?
Sometimes a a dragon comes and you die, or a taxman announces that you are fined – but you don’t know why so as to avoid it later. Sometimes your score goes down or you are sent back to square one and you get no explanation.
The worst game ever.
Now imagine that you live in this game and you can’t just throw in the console and walk away. This is your life now.
For many people, life feels like this incredibly complex multi-player game where others are succeeding, where they understand the rules better than you do, or the rules don’t apply to them. Either way, you don’t understand it and it frustrates you. You can’t find a link between effort and reward, between action and consequence. Pushing the pedal sometimes brings you nothing, sometimes it brings punishment – and pushing it harder doesn’t make your life better.
You feel helpless.
The rules of the economy feel like that for many. Especially for those who grew up in poverty, where their socialization didn’t include an understanding of how the world works. Or people growing up in command economies, where rationality or logic didn’t play a part and honest effort never paid off.
The link between effort and reward has never been established. When they made an effort – nothing happened. When they tried to evade punishment – it still came. They felt like those dogs’ whose efforts to alleviate the pain of an electric shock never worked so they had ultimately unlearned trying.
In this painful state of feeling helpless, any sense of control is welcomed, even when it is illusory.
Illusory control doesn’t make you better off, but that’s no longer your top priority. You think it is, but it really isn’t. What you really want is to make the painful sense of helplessness go away, and since effort never worked, you could never change the world, you had to change your mind about it.
Such efforts to make the sense of helplessness go away are conspiracy theories that offer an explanation – but not a valid one. They offer an explanation of why nothing works, why you are screwed by circumstances, by background powers, by Jewish conspiracy hidden in every legal text longer than ten words.
A conspiracy theory doesn’t actually provide you with a valid world explanation but it shifts the blame and makes the sense of helplessness go away. The sense of it – not the real thing. It doesn’t actually put you back in charge of your own life, but you feel better.
Or take plain old destruction as a way to “take back control”. It doesn’t put you in control of anything, your life will certainly not get any better form it. But when you destroy something, once in your painfully helpless life you are making an impact. You destroy something – and it breaks. Your effort has an impact. You don’t feel impact-less anymore. And that was your priority.
Once people feel helpless enough, the bed is made for a strong state, or an unscrupulous strongman, who will promise to take care of it for you – but it will only make things worse.
It is important to note that learned helplessness has political implications. It may be a private phenomenon – but its has massive political impact. Your political behavior doesn’t come out of thin air – it has been forged in your private life and personal values. You don’t leave it on your front porch when you arrive home, nor are your personal values (or the lack thereof) without political consequences. It would be wrong to equate the two phenomena, but it would be equally wrong not to allow ourselves the intellectual honesty to investigate the similarities.