The Politics of Helplessness

Populism, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, radicalism, anti-semitism, fundamentalism, strongman-politics. The list of the symptoms is long. But these are all just symptoms. Symptoms of the same thing, the actual disease: authoritarian thinking

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

It is extremely rewarding to treat authoritarianism’s symptoms as separate problems. Researchers of ‘populism’ or ‘racism’ will tell you that they have very little to do with ‘anti-semitism’ or ‘fundamentalism’. And the way they defined and delimited their problem makes sure that it is so.

Defining problems in such a vague manner is very profitable. 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 of your thing. Narrow, but catchy definitions allow us to endlessly bounce on the symptoms of a problem and to circumvent the obvious question: What causes them? Poor definitions also ensure that no one will ever find a solution to these problems.

The elements of authoritarian thinking

The elements of authoritarian thinking form a self-reinforcing, vicious cycle, consisting 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.

Some of these symptoms have been discussed on this blog in more detail:

  • 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
  • Zero-sum thinking

Many of the elements 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 you go through the literature discussing these phenomena, one thing will strike you: all the above thinking patterns come down to just two things: fear and the feeling of being helpless.

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. 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. If I’m afraid, but I know how to handle a situation, I won’t regress into childlike parentalism. If we want a better explanation for the phenomenon of authoritarian thinking, we must look beyond fear. We must address the thing that humans find the most painful. It is not fear. It is feeling helpless.


Helplessness means the lack of control. It can come in even more shapes than fear does:

  • complete dependence (positive or negative),
  • seeing no way out,
  • seeing nothing one can do to influence his or her individual outcomes,
  • exposure to a threat.
  • Similarly to fear, it doesn’t have to be true – it is enough if the victim perceives the world as if there is nothing he could do.
  • But oftentimes it is true. The strongman himself takes away liberties to the point where the citizens become truly helpless against his regime.

Humans go out of their way to eliminate the painful sense of helplessness. Beware that I did not say eliminating helplessness itself – just the sense of it. It would require different strategies, but as we can see everywhere, the coping mechanism humans adopt in the face of an overwhelming force doesn’t make the helplessness go away. It doesn’t give them back control. It certainly doesn’t solve their problem. If anything, it makes it worse by forfeiting their freedoms.

The opposite of the sense of helplessness is feeling empowered. Being empowered means having the ability to affect a situation and being aware that you can.

Once we understand the impact of having no control, of being 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 a fearsome threat in order to eliminate resistance to their power grab.

More on How Oppressive Regimes Rob Their Victims of Their Sense of Agency first…

How To Sap People’s Life Force In 3 Easy Steps to cement yourself in power

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 – but we can also snap out of it.

Authoritarian thinking is 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 so to cure the curable.



Exit, Voice, or Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is not only a thing that happens to hostages on the cold marble floors of Scandinavian financial institutions. It is a more ubiquitous coping mechanism in the face of the inevitable, more precisely called ‘dependence bonding’.

In order to speak of dependence bonding, the following conditions must be met: 1) Helplessness: The victim must perceive no way out of the situation. (If a hostage still hopes for rescue, he will not bond, he may pretend it though.) 2) Fear: The situation must be perceived as threatening.

As a result of these two, the victims will show symptoms of dependence bonding: 1)  Loss of individual perspective and identifying with the aggressor, seeing the world from his perspective, putting his interest above their own. 2) Gratitude for not making things even worse. (A hostage is grateful for every minute the aggressor is not taking his life.) ‘Love’ is no longer warranted by some appeal from the aggressor, but merely from gratitude for not making things worse.

When Albert Hirschman came up with his classification of responses to a disintegrating system, he named exit, voice and loyalty as the three options available for a disgruntled citizen/client. What he called ‘loyalty’ has a lot in common with the dysfunctional coping mechanism of dependence bonding. And thus, it explains the seemingly illogical phenomenon when a citizen (or a customer) neither exits, nor tries to fix it (voice), but stays and develops a dysfunctional loyalty that defies reason and even his own best interest.

Some argue that Stockholm syndrome or ‘dependence bonding’ is hard to study because it is rare. But what if it is a basic tendency of human nature – only we don’t pay attention to it when it seems ‘logical’. Like when someone bonds with the person, who cares for them. We only notice it when someone bonds with an aggressor. Even though both are examples of dependence bonding.

Bonding can be achieved by threats and oppression – and the victim will find it hard to tell it from actual love that is deserved by merit and appeal. Somehow, autocrats play on this instrument with instinctive talent. They Only their opponents find it hard to classify and handle the seemingly illogical bonding phenomenon between oppressor and victim. It has massive political implications for the transition to freedom and consolidating it.


How Oppressive Regimes Rob Their Victims of Their Sense of Agency

Starting with the obvious (and political) helplessness is the way oppressive regimes rob their citizens of their sense of control, agency – and make them feel helpless. Helpless against the threat of the day, not in control of their own future, and helpless against the dictator himself.

And that is when the childhood survival strategy, dependence bonding kicks in. People don’t have separate reactions in store for political and personal oppression. The mechanism for survival is the same. If you can’t change your world (or exit it) change your mind about it. 

When a new democracy is established, we talk about new economic and political institutions. Going through the motions of democracy/freedom is supposed to automatically deliver the state of mind necessary to thrive in freedom. But does it? What happens when victims carry their coping strategy over into freedom? Can a strategy designed for survival work under the conditions of freedom? Is it just a very safe strategy, or does it do harm?

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

Survivalism vs. Freedom

We regard freedom as a luxury, only to be sought when all else is safe and secure – but we are wrong.

Authoritarian thinking is just a survival tool. It is internalized during childhood under the condition of complete dependence and we are all capable to regress back into it when we don’t feel in control of our lives to a pathological degree. It may feel like a super-safe strategy for the victim, but in reality, it is self-defeating in the long run. If the victim mistakenly believes that it is not the time for aspirational values, but a time for mere survival, he causes more damage than he hoped to remedy. This is why we need to revisit Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs and realize that it was never meant to suggest that aspirational values (such as freedom) can only be aimed for when all lower-level (more pressing) needs are taken care of. Maslow merely stated that this is how we perceive needs.

Authoritarian thinking is not an appropriate tool for every day, goal-centred living, or prosperity. There is a qualitative difference between the mindset of survival vs that of living. One always has to make a judgment whether he is pursuing mere survival or if it is time to aim for something more. Prosperity. His judgement is based on perceptions, it is subjective, relative and non-linear. This contributes to the difficulty of diagnosing when a society tips over the line of (perceived) survival level values.

More on Where Is Freedom in the Hierarchy of Needs?

Economic anxieties and helplessness 

We use the term ‘middle class’ as proxy to describe people who are in an aspirational mindset. We use income range as a definition for said middle class – but only for lack of a better proxy. 

One of the strongest correlations of social science is between the size of the middle class and the strength of democratic values (whatever they mean). Establishing and maintaining freedom in a society depends on a large chunk of its people switching from survival to aspirational mode. The term ‘middle class’ is meant to capture that status, which is a mindset, more than a certain level of income. ‘Middle class’ doesn’t mean a certain amount of income (even if statistics are limited to counting that). It means the sense of economic security that allows people to raise their eyes above the need for survival, and gain aspirations, things to pursue in life.

Economic anxieties are a major culprit in backsliding of freedom in a society. As the middle class is shrinking, people step down from aspirational to survival values. Economic security and belonging to the middle class is meant to cover the same thing. But whether anyone feels secure or is in a survival mindset is not an objective thing. It depends on his or her own perceptions.


How welfare contributes to populism

The welfare state is (rightly) credited with making the existential fear from abject poverty go away and thus calmed the economic anxieties that contributed to the rise of many dictators  in the past. But is this a solution to disempowerment or did it just prolong the period between two populist uprisings?

In the long run, the welfare-only approach cannot work. Firstly, it cannot soothe economic anxieties anymore when the money runs out. (When, not if it runs out.) But more importantly, it does nothing to empower the recipients – to make them feel in control of their own economic standing. One’s dependence and disempowerment only becomes obvious when the welfare provision is shrunk, during austerity, when the recipients become painfully aware of their own helplessness to control their income. It may sound great to be a pet in a zoo, but no one likes to think about what happens when provisions run out or your masters turn evil.

If you want to create a world where dictatorships won’t happen again on the back of economic anxieties, think a bit harder than just handing out money. Also leave people’s freedom to trade, make money, cooperate, alone.

That means being pro-market, not pro-business, for instance, and stop supporting the obscene amount of regulations on the assumptions that they serve some sort of safety. They also keep newcomers out of industries, the most vulnerable, least skilled members of society away from the lowest steps of the ladder. That means cutting back drastically on occupational licensing as well as on overregulation – or benefiting the incumbents in any other way.

Political left and right are the same problem

And so is left and right wing authoritarianism. There are only superficial differences between them, but once you strip away their rhetoric, you find the same old fear+helplessness duo behind them.

Whether you find legal meddling in other people’s wallets or sex lives more acceptable is just a matter of taste. And very poor taste, indeed, either way.

Whether you want to live without the (economic) consequences of your choices or whether you want to deprive people of (lifestyle) choices but demand that they take responsibility – your problem is the same: trying to separate choice from responsibility. And to a lesser degree, trying to homogenise society.

This is how far it takes us when we stop listening to the ideology talk and just look at the what really is happening.

Sexism as a form of authoritarian thinking

Studies pushing the connection between ‘young men not having access to sex/women’ and violence or war- are downright disturbing. No wonder they led to ‘logical’ conclusions like the redistribution of female humans, like commodities. Authoritarian thinking treats everyone (including self) as a commodity, it is prone to empower the leaders to intervene to ensure certain ends (redistribution) and disregard the means to that end.

But sexism and violence are merely two symptoms of the same underlying problem. Authoritarian societies are more prone to going to war. They are also more sexist. And the imbalance and human suffering caused by sexist enforcement of hypocritical morals and social roles frustrate everyone equally, regardless of gender. If lack of satisfying sex would lead people to violence, women would have started a revolution a long time ago. It is about something else and the division is somewhere else.

The same thing that pushes down women (part structural and part internalized) in sexist societies pushes down men (everyone) in authoritarian societies. People’s strategies to placate the stronger and learn to love the inevitable is exactly the same as women’s reaction to their unshakable roles in sexist societies. (That’s right, I’ve just said that we are all the autocrats’ bitches.)

Thinking with the head of your dictator 

One of the saddest traits of the authoritarian thinker is how little he dwells in his own mind. He really hates being in his own shoes, being disempowered, feeling helpless and not being in control – it is much more rewarding to put himself in the shoes of the powerful and imagine how the powerful should push his peasants on the chessboard. It is the equivalent of recreationally daydreaming about being rich – it just does a lot more damage. It enables, for instance, the central planning approach to everything, a compulsive thinking tick that wants to ban/enforce/tax/police everything it perceives as a problem, and it wants to do so from a central authority’s perspective.

It is not only more comfortable (mentally) but also safer (politically and otherwise) to regard the world from the strong’s point of view.

More on The Dislocated Locus of Identity

Considerations for tackling authoritarian thinking

When we take helplessness and (individual) control (over individual lives) into account, we will see radically new paths to tackle age-old problems.

  1. The solution is empowerment, not a fear-less world. You can’t soothe all fears and make all threats (real or imagined) go away so that the scared little authoritarians would stop being afraid – and get on with their lives. Not least because they (and you) don’t know what they are supposed to get on with. You have no positive image to offer to people who suffer from exactly that: the absence of a positive life goal.
  2. Offer (individual) empowerment instead of taking care of things. In this, even the welfare-believers are wrong.
  3. Give back control, don’t “take it back”. The problem with strongmen is that they make feel you even more helpless while they promise to solve things. They point at something threatening – but instead of giving you the freedom to handle threats in your own life, they take away even more freedom. So how is your well-meaning offer to take care of the scary things better than the strongman is going to tackle the appetite for the strongman exactly?
  4. Crowd out attention. Head-on clashing with fearmongering only makes fearmongering more effective. (See case study on how not to communicate to people who bought into immigration scaremongering.) The solution is taking the bandwidth away from fretting and directing it towards the things one can do.

Seeing the world through the prism of helplessness provides us with novel and better problem definitions – and well as better ideas of how to tackle these problems. But there are all negative instructions.

What is to be done?

To answer the trick question ‘What is to be done?’ we first have to ask back: ‘Who is doing it?’ The janitor at my university has infinitely less and different tools at his disposal then I do. And a celebrity or a politician has infinitely more tools than an irrelevant blogger.

But that’s not all. We also have to ask ourselves whether we want to pursue a collective solution or an individual one. Remember, the kind of helplessness humans want to do away with is regarding their own, individual lives. So is the proposed solution individual or collective? Should I change myself (my own thinking) or others’?


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

Contribute to the research if you think it’s worth pursuing – or contact with more ideas at meanwhileinbudapest (at) 

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