The Politics of Helplessness

Populism, illiberalism, xenophobia, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, radicalism, anti-semitism, fundamentalism, strongman-politics, etc. The list of the symptoms is long. But these are all just that: symptoms. The actual disease is what the literature calls authoritarian thinking

I know I am losing you when I use that word…

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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. And as it is with so many problems, its various manifestations are regarded separately.

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

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

The research assumes that

  • behind the different political shapes it takes, authoritarian thinking rests on the same thinking patterns and mental tricks.
  • that authoritarian thinking may be something that comes easily for humans – but it is not inevitable.
  • It is not a permanent feature of any single individual. The inclination may be stronger or weaker, but circumstances also play a role by triggering this thinking pattern.
  • It can manifest itself on all sides of any divide – in fact, it is likely to do so as opponents often define us stronger than we do ourselves.
  • Political behavior doesn’t start in the public sphere. It is rooted in personal philosophy, identity  – or the absence of them – as well as individual psychology.

It is extremely rewarding to treat authoritarianism’s symptoms as separate problems. Researchers of ‘populism’ will tell you that they have very little to do with ‘antisemitism’ or ‘fundamentalism’ – even though those things sometimes correlate. And the way researchers define and delimit their subject makes sure that they will never see beyond the outer manifestations of the problems.

Defining problems so narrowly is very profitable in academia – as well as 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 of your thing.
  • Vague, narrow, but catchy definitions incense readers and allow us to endlessly bounce on the symptoms of a problem, while ignoring the bigger picture and making a solution even harder to find.

Because poor definitions also ensure that no one will ever find a solution to these problems.

The elements of authoritarian thinking

I know, I’m still using this long and boring word, but bear with me for a little longer.

The elements of authoritarian thinking are worth studying. You may have to create a list from a number of sources though, because researchers tend to focus of one or few aspects of it. 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.

With thoughtful reading, you will find that these mental tricks and thinking patterns form a self-reinforcing, vicious cycle.

  • 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

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. Even art makes prolific use of the wisdom that fear is the cause of many human vices. There is no surprise there.

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 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,
  • 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. Getting back actual control would require very different strategies, authoritarian thinking and behavior will never deliver that.

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.

What authoritarian thinking does is making the sense of helplessness go away. Thinking it away, if you like, with a bunch of mental tricks.

  • It explains why “taking back control” works as a political slogan – but somehow never means giving it back to the individual. It is just a feelgood substitute to actual control to empower a strongman to tackle the scary thing (that the strongman likely caused himself).
  • It is never about getting back individual control – over individual outcomes. Authoritarian thinkers may sound willful and confident, but they all fall for the mirage of collective control. Over collective outcomes.
  • This is also the reason why outrageous policies actually strengthen an emerging autocrat – a phenomenon that baffles everyone, all the time. The key is: it enforces the sense of being helpless against the strongman. Your disapproval only works against you: once your disapproval and outrage fail to change the thing, you will lapse into even deeper helplessness and resignation – and will think twice before getting outraged again.
  • It also explains why destruction is as good as a way to do away with the sense of helplessness as any. It doesn’t help you to take control over your life – but it makes you feel you have some sort of impact.
  • Same goes for conspiracy theories. They are not valid worldviews, you couldn’t exactly act on them. But they make you feel on top of things by providing the illusion that you know the rules of the world. Conspiracy theories are a form of attempted information control.
  • This is why authoritarian minds abhor the idea of human rights (as understood as liberties and assurances against state power). Why would someone need liberties who feels helpless to use them? And authoritarian thinker may shout loudly and appear terribly potent – but in the end he feels helpless in manipulating the outcomes. That’s why he needs a strongman and manipulate things by proxy. Even praying to the ultimate power or trying to appease the dictator sounds more effective than getting things done himself – so who needs the freedom to do it?
  • This is also why authoritarians abhor the idea of competition (and free markets). Because helpless people don’t feel they have a running chance to compete. If you feel fundamentally helpless in shaping the world – how could anyone expect it from you to compete? Authoritarians regard competition as a way to hurt the competitor, not as a way to improve their own conduct. It is not merely a zero sum game, but one where the only available course of action is destruction (of the opponent). How could that possibly have a positive outcome? (Non-authoritarians, on the other hand use the word ‘competition’ to describe a way for everyone to get better at what they do, which rests upon the perception that everyone is in control of their outcomes.) What authoritarians want instead of the freedom to compete is economic safety nets – for individuals as well as for corporations. Authoritarians can thus be welfare-demanding redistributionists as well as businesses lobbying for legislative privileges. Being pro-business, rather than pro-market means authoritarianism as well – as free and voluntary markets mean competition, while regulation and protectionism means none of it.

This is why the true division is not between pro-business and pro-redistribution types. They are both on the same side – and against free and voluntary cooperation and exchange. They are both authoritarians. The moral difference is whether choice and decision lies at the same place. But that, of course, requires one to feel the opposite of helpless.

There are countless ways humans try to regain the sense of (often illusory) control – often by proxy of enforcement. The first is the homogenisation of society as a means to achieve understanding as well as asserting control (by proxy of the state). In fact, willing society to do their bidding and using the state as a proxy to exerting their will is one surefire signal that one harbors deeply entrenched authoritarian tendencies. Supporting central control or central planning – whether lifestyle or economic – is another one.

Left and right wing thinking may look radically different in its view of society and how it should look like – but that is just a distraction. It ensures that no one strays on the non-authoritarian side of the division.

Seeing left and right as the only two options (regardless of your own definition of them) is just an insufficient level of attention given to the driving force behind those visions. When taking a step back, one can see the parallels between the two visions: the desire to create a homogeneous society paired with the desire to enforce that vision by the force of the state.

Whether the homogenisation efforts are horizontal (identical life paths, religion, the only right vision of family) or vertical (economic equalisation), the underlying desire is similar: to gain control over others by enforcing homogenisation, and thus making them identical in one, crucial sense. The so called “left” offers to homogenise society materially, while the so called “right” wants the same but in terms of life choices. Whether one feels it more acceptable to meddle in others’ life choices or bank accounts is merely a difference of taste.

One tries to do away with (individual) choice – another with (individual) consequences. How is either one morally superior or a solution to anything?

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.

Read about the example of the 1956 Hungarian revolution and its aftermath in Hungary as an example of enforcing the sense of helplessness: How To Sap People’s Life Force In 3 Easy Steps to cement yourself in power

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

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 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 so 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 literally no good way to address a threat. You may know that the dragon does’t exist. Or that it’s actually really nice. Or you may know that the strongman himself poked or created it. Either way, you cannot communicate it in a way that frees the unfree mind. Whether you are publishing papers about the net positive impact of dragons on the GDP or know effective ways to fight dragons – you are still talking about the dragons. And if you offer to tackle the dragon yourself for the helpless little people who are now sacred of the dragon – you are just a counter-populist.

Addressing helplessness is, on the other hand, possible without walking into the populist threat. The key to success is to offer individual empowerment to individuals. Even if it’s just to their minds.


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.

It is similarly difficult to understand how flight or fight responses have a third, inexplicable option: adopting to a bad situation. As the individual sees no chance of effectively fighting back, nor of fleeing the threat – he may choose to try and adapt to the bad situation. It may be self-defeating in the long run. It may look illogical. But you need to understand which options the victim can see – not the options he actually has.

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’. Everyone bonds with the person, who cares for them. We only notice the phenomenon when it makes no logical sense: when someone bonds with an aggressor. Even though both are examples of dependence bonding, we don’t count a child’s love for his parents as a manifestation of the same psychological phenomenon. We only study that when it bonds the child with an abusive parent, for instance, because then it looks illogical and it is self-defeating.

Bonding can be achieved through threats and oppression, not just by being very nice to someone – and the victim will find it hard to tell dependence bonding from actual love that is deserved by merit and appeal, because people are awfully bad at telling love from gratitude and pleasure from mere relief. But gratitude for not hurting even more is a powerful force.

Somehow, autocrats play on this instrument with instinctive talent, probably because it is very similar to bullying. And their opponents find it hard to address the seemingly illogical bonding phenomenon between oppressor and victims. 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 under conditions of freedom?

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 by adapting to a bad situation, like an autocracy.

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 thinking pattern for everyday, goal-centered living, or prosperity. There is a qualitative difference between the mindset of survival vs that of living, and one can’t just do both to be absolutely safe and to prosper at the same time.

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.

One needs to be able to tell the difference between the things that can be changed and the ones that can’t be. And it is always good to see an option to exit if one wants to keep a free mind.

This is also why an authoritarian mind cannot afford looking forward to the future – and the death of futurism is the most alarming sign of an era of political depression approaching. Who would be dreaming about e future one only aims to survive?

More on Where Is Freedom in the Hierarchy of Needs?

Economic anxieties and helplessness 

The economy can be a ‘dragon’. 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. We should really be able to identify whether they are still in survival mode – or whether they have things they want and a certainty that they can get them by their own effort.

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

Looking at political behavior through the prism of helplessness leads you to a few surprising conclusions – and answers some puzzling and seemingly illogical political behaviors. One of these conclusions is that welfare provisions can induce the sense of economic helplessness – and thus prime a population to crave and accept a strongman.

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, and 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 under a welfare system 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 the zookeepers turn evil.

How overregulation contributes to populism

Looking at political behavior through the prism of helplessness leads you to a few surprising conclusions – and answers some puzzling and seemingly illogical political behaviors. One of these conclusions is that overregaulation can induce the sense of economic helplessness – and thus prime a population to crave and accept a strongman.

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. The solution must entail empowerment, reaffirming the link between one’s action and one’s economic standing. And to achieve that, one must leave people’s freedom to trade, make money, cooperate, alone. That means cutting back drastically on occupational licensing as well as on overregulation – or benefiting the incumbents in any other way.

That means being pro-market, not pro-business. That means stopping support for the obscene amount of regulations on the assumptions that they are designed with the zoo animals’ safety in mind. Tens of thousands of pages of regulations regarding something as simple as selling hot dogs (and paying taxes on it) is the definition of inducing the sense of helplessness in a population. Regulations also keep newcomers out of industries. The people who need to start with the simplest of things like selling stuff on the streets cannot do so legally and get a leg up the economic ladder if they can’t comply with those thousands of pages of regulations (and often pay fees to get licenses in advance). As a result, the most vulnerable, least skilled members of society are kept away from the lowest steps of the ladder.

Leaving opportunities truly open needs to complement economic safety nets – or we all become the helpless stooges of the next autocrat who exploits the sense of economic helplessness inherent in welfare-dependence.

Political left and right are the same problem when it comes to authoritarian thinking

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

Whether you find meddling in other people’s wallets or sex lives more acceptable is just a matter of taste. (And very poor taste, indeed.) Using the state as a proxy to exert your will on others is also a universal sign of authoritarian thinking pattern on the roll.

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.

What you are not doing in the meantime is more telling than what you demand.

Sexism as a form of authoritarian thinking

Sexism is universal, just as every other manifestation of authoritarian thinking. It carries all the symptoms, the victim blaming, the angry stomping on the weak, submission of the victim, aggression of the higher-up, dominance deteriorating into abuse – to name just a few.

A really disturbing example is the poor understanding of sex and war. 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 – these studies regard do men as agents and women as commodities. The authoritarian mind is also prone to support higher intervention to ensure certain ends (redistribution) and disregard the means to that end.

But if lack of orgasm would lead people to violence, women would have started a war a long time ago. The sex-violence problem is about something else and the definition of the problem lies somewhere else.

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. 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 symptom of the authoritarian mind 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. Not to mention highly encouraged – and taking your own viewpoint discouraged.

Imagining how the powerful should push his peasants on the chessboard is bother safer and more pleasant than dwelling in one’s own head. 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, people’s lives as well as the economy. It manifests itself in the 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

Authoritarian reactions to the mere idea of AI

The research applies its findings to the human reaction to the mere idea of powerful artificial intelligence emerging.

Similarly to religionism, some humans have already resorted to worshiping AI, in case it emerges and we have no tools against it. And similarly to statism, many didn’t even assume that the emergent machine overlord would be malevolent. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. An authoritarian mind is primed to appease a bully – not a nice leader.

The question emerges: Would You Suck Up to an AI Overlord? And even more importantly: would it care?

More on the future vs the authoritarian mind…

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. Also, this empowerment can just be how one sees the world – you don’t have to hand out tools and licences to actually make them more powerful. Remember, helplessness becomes real from believing in it.
  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 for you. 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. So stop talking about that dragon. (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.


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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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