kortina.nyc / notes
27 Jan 2023 | by kortina

Hoffer // The True Believer

Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer is a 1951 study of mass movement that examines populist movements in Germany, the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere – with the sort of lens of “how do we make sure this doesn’t happen in America?”

It’s maybe most relevant today to consider how it might be helpful in understanding the “discontents of globalization” – and anyone else who might be dissatisfied.

One odd thing about this book is an undertone of warning to the non-ruling creative class – that intellectual critique of the establishment foments revolt of the public (“What is not so obvious is the process by which the discrediting of existing beliefs and institutions makes possible the rise of a new fanatical faith.”). On the one hand, I understand that pure criticism is not as helpful as a plan of action, a solution; on the other hand, I’m not sure a regime absolved of all critique is a healthy thing.

Mass movement takes full advantage of the yearning for hope (vs offering short term relief):

351 One of the most potent attractions of a mass movement is its offering of a substitute for individual hope. This attraction is particularly effective in a society imbued with the idea of progress. For in the conception of progress, “tomorrow” looms large, and the frustration resulting from having nothing to look forward to is the more poignant. Hermann Rauschning says of pre-Hitlerian Germany that “The feeling of having come to the end of all things was one of the worst troubles we endured after that lost war.”2 In a modern society people can live without hope only when kept dazed and out of breath by incessant hustling. The despair brought by unemployment comes not only from the threat of destitution, but from the sudden view of a vast nothingness ahead. The unemployed are more likely to follow the peddlers of hope than the handers-out of relief.

Mass movements recognize and deploy this tactic quite well but it’s surprising that private corporations do not take more advantage of this:

674 The employer whose only purpose is to keep his workers at their task and get all he can out of them is not likely to attain his goal by dividing them—playing off one worker against the other. It is rather in his interest that the workers should feel themselves part of a whole, and preferably a whole which comprises the employer, too. A vivid feeling of solidarity, whether racial, national or religious, is undoubtedly an effective means of preventing labor unrest. Even when the type of solidarity is such that it cannot comprise the employer, it nevertheless tends to promote labor contentment and efficiency. Experience shows that production is at its best when the workers feel and act as members of a team. Any policy that disturbs and tears apart the team is bound to cause severe trouble. “Incentive wage plans that offer bonuses to individual workers do more harm than good…. Group incentive plans in which the bonus is based on the work of the whole team, including the foreman … are much more likely to promote greater productivity and greater satisfaction on the part of the workers.”21

Costume, ritual, religiosity, and make believe transform death into a theatrical gesture:

924 Dying and killing seem easy when they are part of a ritual, ceremonial, dramatic performance or game. There is need for some kind of make-believe in order to face death unflinchingly. To our real, naked selves there is not a thing on earth or in heaven worth dying for. It is only when we see ourselves as actors in a staged (and therefore unreal) performance that death loses its frightfulness and finality and becomes an act of make-believe and a theatrical gesture. It is one of the main tasks of a real leader to mask the grim reality of dying and killing by evoking in his followers the illusion that they are participating in a grandiose spectacle, a solemn or light-hearted dramatic performance.

Discrediting the establishment can lead to fanaticism:

1779 It is easy to see how the faultfinding man of words, by persistent ridicule and denunciation, shakes prevailing beliefs and loyalties, and familiarizes the masses with the idea of change. What is not so obvious is the process by which the discrediting of existing beliefs and institutions makes possible the rise of a new fanatical faith. For it is a remarkable fact that the militant man of words who “sounds the established order to its source to mark its want of authority and justice”15 often prepares the ground not for a society of freethinking individuals but for a corporate society that cherishes utmost unity and blind faith. A wide diffusion of doubt and irreverence thus leads often to unexpected results. The irreverence of the Renaissance was a prelude to the new fanaticism of Reformation and Counter Reformation. The Frenchmen of the enlightenment who debunked the church and the crown and preached reason and tolerance released a burst of revolutionary and nationalist fanaticism which has not abated yet. Marx and his followers discredited religion, nationalism and the passionate pursuit of business, and brought into being the new fanaticism of socialism, communism, Stalinist nationalism and the passion for world dominion.

More of that conservative language that gives cause for skepticism about the intentions of this book:

1829 When the old order begins to fall apart, many of the vociferous men of words, who prayed so long for the day, are in a funk. The first glimpse of the face of anarchy frightens them out of their wits. They forget all they said about the “poor simple folk” and run for help to strong men of action—princes, generals, administrators, bankers, landowners—who know how to deal with the rabble and how to stem the tide of chaos.

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