The Politics of Helplessness

Populism, illiberalism, xenophobia, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, radicalism, anti-semitism, fundamentalism, extremism, strongman-politics, etc. The list of the symptoms is long. But these are all just that: symptoms.

What if all these troubles come from the same source? What if we are asking the wrong questions? What if left and right, religious and communist, reactionist and progressivist are really just different manifestations of the same thinking pattern?

The actual disease is what the literature calls authoritarian thinking. And you cannot treat a symptom without addressing the cause.

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Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) dir. Béla Tarr

‘Authoritarian thinking’ is an academic term that puts you to sleep. But its symptoms keep you awake at night. As long as its various manifestations are handled separately, there will be no solutions.

This research sets out to flesh out the elements of contemporary authoritarianism – the self-reinforcing vicious cycle of thinking patterns – in order to find inflection points where these thinking habits can be hacked.

This page is a summary of the research. Details under the links. 

  • Beyond the numerous (loud and forceful) political manifestations, authoritarian thinking rests upon only a few thinking patterns and mental tricks that are the same across the political spectrum.
  • Authoritarian thinking is not inevitable. It is not a permanent feature of any single individual, hence the term ‘thinking pattern’ – rather than ‘personality’ or ‘authoritarianism’. The inclination may rise and ebb in any given individual at any given point in time. Circumstances also play an important role in triggering this thinking pattern and some individuals are more resistant to its lure than others.
  • It can manifest itself on all sides of any division. In fact, it is likely to do so as opponents often define us more strongly than we define ourselves. Authoritarianism on one side is thus very likely to trigger a corresponding counter-authoritarianism in its opposition.
  • Political behavior doesn’t start in the public sphere and is not limited to it. Both our personal and public behavior are rooted in personal philosophy, conceptions of identity  – or the absence of it – as well as individual psychology, and a thinking pattern spreads across life realms as well as though groups of people based on the interaction of the individual and the social.

It is extremely rewarding to treat authoritarianism’s symptoms as completely separate problems. Researchers of ‘populism’ will tell you that they have very little to do with ‘antisemitism’ or ‘fundamentalism’ – even though those things admittedly correlate in a population. The way scholars define and delimit their subject matter makes sure that nothing fruitful ever comes from their inquiries – least of all some inspired thoughts toward a solution.

Defining problems so narrowly is very profitable in academia – as well as in click-hunting.

  • Short-sighted and highly specialized thinking about narrow and poorly defined problems gets you academic tenure and a regular spot on TV as an expert. This self-imposed blindness also discourages inter-expertise ventures, let alone genuine, multidisciplinary inquiry.
  • Vague, narrow, but catchy definitions incense and entice readers. They allow us to infinitely bounce on the symptoms, while ignoring the problem and making a solution even harder to find.

Poor definitions ensure that no one will ever find a solution to these problems.

The building blocks of authoritarian thinking

The various aspects of authoritarian thinking are often studied separately.

They consist of – among other things – the fear of failure, the absence of horizontal bonds of trust in society, reflexivity, fear of the unknown, the dissolution of the individual’s own perspective, clinging to and encouraging fear, victim blaming, learned helplessness, identifying with the powerful, need for identity-based hierarchy, and considering freedom to be a luxury.

  • Fondness for order 
  • Inability or unwillingness to embrace uncertainty
  • Submissiveness to authority
  • Authoritarian aggression toward the underdog (includes, but not limited to victim blaming)
  • Conformity
  • Need and desire to homogenize society (along race, opinion, wealth, class, faith, or customs)
  • Fear of outsiders (xenophobia)
  • Admiration of strength and power
  • Loss of individual perspective and adopting the viewpoint of the powerful
  • Adopting the group perspective (as part of the above) and often also majoritarianism
  • Impatience with the rule of law (helplessness compensated by enabling a strongman)
  • Conventionalism
  • Political intolerance (e.g., restriction of free speech),
  • Moral intolerance (e.g., homophobia, supporting censorship)
  • Punitiveness – prioritizing our own punitive instinct above solving a problem or rectifying a situation
  • Hierarchical and status-oriented thinking
  • Favoring group authority and conformity to individual autonomy and diversity
  • Fondness for conspiracy theories and scapegoating as a way of regaining control over complexity, information deficit, and the painful feeling that we don’t know how to avoid bad things to come to us
  • Conditional morality and cynicism
  • Low level of generalized trust (for fellow human beings) but a completely unchecked degree of trust for the powerful
  • Zero-sum thinking

These thinking patterns form a self-reinforcing, vicious cycle. Many of them may sound innocent in isolation, but they support each other and, in combination they weaken society’s resistance to the abuse of power and authoritarianism. They also fly on the wings of social conformity.

When going through the literature of each phenomenon and dissecting them to find out how they work, we will find that all the above thinking patterns come down to just two things: fear and the sense of helplessness. The combination of fear and helplessness triggers and facilitates a lapse into authoritarian thinking.


Fear is a well-known and well-researched element of authoritarian thinking. Even art makes prolific use of the wisdom that fear is the cause of many human vices.

Fear can be:

  • Real or perceived,
  • slow burning anxiety or sudden terror,
  • of a security or an economic threat.

Fear is a necessary but not sufficient precondition of authoritarian thinking.

Fear alone won’t make an individual regress into childlike parentalism. If we want a better explanation for authoritarian thinking, we must look beyond fear. We must address the thing that humans find the most painful and what they work to avoid at all cost.

It is not fear. It is feeling helpless.


Helplessness means the absence of control. Of individual control over individual outcomes. (There is no such thing as collective control just as there is no collective freedom.) And as control is power, and power is a zero-sum phenomenon (either I control something or someone else), helplessness is powerlessness. The more control a leader gets, the less there is left for the individuals in a society.

Inducing learned helplessness in individuals makes the exercise of power cheap and easy.

On the most basic level helplessness means that the link between individual action and outcomes is broken. It makes the victim stop wanting things because he feels that he couldn’t attain them anyway. And once learned, it is very hard to unlearn. (More about its mechanics here.)

Learned helplessness can manifest itself in even more shapes than fear does:

  • complete dependence (positive or negative),
  • seeing no way out or believing that the alternatives are terrible,
  • seeing something as inevitable,
  • seeing nothing a person can do to influence his or her individual outcomes,
  • exposure to a threat.

Similarly to fear, helplessness doesn’t have to be real – it is enough if the victim believes it is and perceives the world as if there was nothing he can do. Resistance or escape may be possible – but unimaginable for the victim. The resulting submission will be just as real.

But oftentimes helplessness is real, especially in oppressive systems.

Humans go out of their way to eliminate the painful sense of helplessness. That is the real motivation behind many authoritarian thinking patterns. It does not mean eliminating helplessness itself – just the sense of it. Getting back actual control would require very different actions, but authoritarian thinking will never deliver that.

The coping mechanism humans adopt in the face of an overwhelming force, an inevitable thing, an inescapable situation doesn’t make the helplessness itself go away because it doesn’t even try to make the inescapable situation, the inevitability to go away. It doesn’t give people back control. It certainly doesn’t solve their problem. If anything, authoritarian thinking and submission makes their problem worse by forfeiting their freedoms and neglecting to attempt change.

Once we understand the impact of having no control, of being or feeling helpless, we can finally look at the authoritarian monster in the eye. And we can see how emerging autocrats need to evoke the sense of helplessness (as well as the much-researched fearsome threat) in order to eliminate resistance to their power grab.

Authoritarian thinking is not an unshakable trait

In the old days, authoritarian thinking was called ‘authoritarian personality’. This research, however, adopts the view that authoritarianism is a thinking pattern, a mental habit, a frame of mind. And if it can be evoked – we can also snap out of it.

Authoritarian thinking is based on the mechanics of dependence bonding – which is turn is triggered by the sense of feeling helpless as much as the perceived threat. It is a survival mechanism born out of the perception of inevitability and dependence – and we are all born with it. (It is not a coincidence that much of the literature on it keeps using parenting terms when describing it.)

Authoritarian thinking is, however, not a fixed trait, but a mental model, or framing the world that can be very deep-seated, sometimes inherited, but it is definitely not unmovable. It is conditional, it can be triggered, and it is a response to (perceived) circumstances. And if it can be triggered – it can also go away. Yes, it may turn out to be not working in certain cases. But only an idiot would devise a strategy with hopeless cases in mind. If we set out to understand and cure a problem, we are doing it to cure the curable.

You can’t address fear – but you can address helplessness

As perceptive artists and political scientists have noted, inducing fear and anxiety in a population is the first step of gaining power over them. It is based on a threat that can be economic or security-related. It may or may not be caused or exacerbated by the strongman himself. Let us call the threat ‘the dragon’.

The problem with fighting back is that there is no way to address a threat that would eliminate fear in those who believe in that threat. We can’t just tell people that the fearsome dragon doesn’t exist. Or that it’s actually really nice. Or that the strongman himself invented or poked the dragon. There is no way to discuss a threat (real or perceived) that would free an unfree mind. Whether we are publishing papers about the net positive impact of dragons on the GDP or know effective ways to fight dragons – we are still talking about the dragons. And if we offer to tackle the dragon ourselves just to soothe the helpless little people – we are just counter-populist authoritarians and haven’t solved the problem.

Addressing helplessness is, on the other hand, possible without walking into the dragon trap. The key to success is to offer individual empowerment to individuals.

More about the research…

Contact at meanwhileinbudapest (at) 


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Featured images from the film Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) by Béla Tarr

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