On Infantilisation

On Infantilisation

Thesis: Ruling elites have no interest in mature critical adult citizens and thus have developed various means of keeping as many in infantile states of consciousness as much as possible.

As mammals and as a species we are born into dependency and powerlessness. As children we naturally, both through love and/or fear, build our own identities by bonding and identifying with our powerful parents or carers. As we have no alternative, this generally happens even when they may ignore or abuse us. In caste and class societies, this natural infantile identification and powerlessness is then artificially and artfully prolonged by social structures and power systems run by and for elites.

Although the experience is obviously concentrated in classes at the bottom of the social hierarchy, from school to factory and office most of us will experience ourselves socially as subservient order-takers. Living and working within the impersonal, bureaucratised, centralised structures of the modern ‘megamachine’ (Lewis Mumford), most of us seldom experience anything but hierarchy and the force of ‘power-over’.

Thus opportunities for true self-activity and creativity are, for the overwhelming majority, mainly restricted to some leisure-time pursuits and the private sphere. Reduced to being passive consumers of the media spectacles of so-called ‘politics’ and voters of elected State oligarchies, we never experience the excitement, responsibilities and public self-activity of actual, i.e. direct democracy. Without any alternative experience to measure it against, the notion of ‘politics’ and ‘democracy’ as something done by others comes to seem natural and normal.

At work, even if we should move up the social hierarchy into some position of order-giving and power over others, we will still find ourselves constrained by others above us in the social pyramid of power or else by the very structures we serve. Even to the very powerful, no one would seem to be in overall control of things. Even as they make decisions and give orders that determine the lives of millions, government and corporate leaders and executives find themselves powerlessly following the impersonal systemic dictates of abstractions like ‘the economy’ and ‘markets’.

Especially powerless working and lower middle class men have in many countries often enthusiastically flocked to the flag and war drum in ‘apparent sheeplike fashion’. In war time armies, many working and lower middle class men, or racially oppressed groups like the blacks in the US, often experience being recognised as socially significant or even acclaimed as ‘heroes’ for the first time in their lives. An equality and social confirmation withheld from them in capitalist or racist societies is now suddenly granted: the equality in the oppressors’ right to kill.

Building on ancient tribalism and xenophobia, the ideology of nationalism (often euphemised as ‘patriotism’), cultivated by ruling elites and inherently related to militarism and modern war, also compensates powerless and marginalized groups and classes with a sense of vicarious power, recognition, meaning and togetherness that is missing in their everyday lives within the cold indifferent structures of bureaucratic industrial capitalism and the frenetic emptiness and meaninglessness of consumerism.

An over-identification with the parental figures of the powerful State, with Nation, Leaders, Armies can thus provide the powerless and infantilised with a false sense of power that is missing in their own lives. Chauvinism may seem to provide a pseudo-small group sense of togetherness and meaning missing in large bureaucratic structures. Turn-of-the-century anarchist Emma Goldman had a keen sense of the infantile dimensions and functions of military display:

‘The powers that have for centuries been engaged in enslaving the masses have made a thorough study of their psychology. They know that the people at large are like children whose despair, sorrow, and tears can be turned into joy with a little toy. And the more gorgeously the toy is dressed, the louder the colors, the more it will appeal to the million-headed child. An army and navy represents the people’s toys.’

Like natural catastrophes and emergencies, the violence, danger and suffering of war may at the same time seem to put the heroic risk and challenge back into lives chronically deprived of them in hierarchical and bureaucratised industrial societies. (This is an important element of both the fascist appeal and the complex Anzac Day myth in Australia).

If both cultural parenting styles and social class structures consistently deprive people of significance, recognition and a sense of power and dignity anchored in socially constructive and cooperative work, it will be found in destructive ways.

The social powerlessness, marginalisation and socially enforced insignificance that must come with societies based on class, race and gender divisions and disparities – all translate psychologically into a pervasive lack of self-efficacy, of an adult sense of being able to control things, of a strong, socially reinforced identity and thus a general lack of self-confidence, mature dignity and self-esteem. Social powerlessness thus keeps us psychologically stuck at an infantile level of dependence. It facilitates the prolongation of infantile and adolescent modes of consciousness such as: idealisation of ‘strong’ leaders as surrogate parental figures, intolerance of ambivalence and simplifying or dichotomous cognition (either/or, us/them, black/white, good/evil), displacement of rage and aggression (scapegoating). All these psychological features find their extreme social expressions in anti-liberal and authoritarian politics, especially in right-wing nationalism, militarism and fascism.

Adult strong ego-formation and critical, independent thinking thus remain tentative and weak in both traditional authoritarian and modern narcissistic character structures, both prone to (albeit differing) forms of ‘group think’ and social conformism. Right-wing nationalist ideologies both express and further manipulate authoritarian and narcissistic mass needs for strong parental figures/leaders, vicarious participation in military and/or imperial surrogate forms of power and the pseudo-cohesion of a constructed national identity.

Weak adult or infantile egos are precisely what the industrial capitalist system and its state needs since they mean obedient followers and consumers. Government propaganda and corporate marketing are both historically and structurally connected. What structurally connects the thought control of government propaganda and corporate marketing from a psychological perspective is the manipulative recourse to infantile regression and parental transference. As Douglas Rushkoff summarises:

‘Basically, if people can be made to feel disoriented or helpless, they will seek out someone to act as a parent. When people are confused, they want parents who can tell them what to do and reassure them. Once you create a situation where people feel that they can trust you, that you understand them, that you’ll take care of them, or that you’ll lead them, they will submit.’

Advertising tends to pitch its wares to consumers as spoiled or anxious children. Active political culture has long given way to a passive consumer spectacle of political celebrities maintained by an extensive industry of PR spin doctors, pollsters, consultants, think tanks, political marketers, electoral demography experts, makeover artists, psychologists etc. Both marketers and political leaders generally thrive on the passive consumption of images, on fear, insecurity and anxiety, not on the freedom they so often ideologically profess. They have an inherent interest in people feeling insecure and unsure of themselves and/or of the images they present to the world, in feeling as helpless or anxious about themselves and the big wide world as maternally un-bonded, insecure infants might. They strive to play on, stimulate or even create these anxieties for which they can then present their product, service, authoritarian state, ‘strong leadership’ or ‘follow-and-trust-me’ platitudes as so-called ‘solutions’.

A world full of vague dangers and ‘bad guys’ (communists, rogue states, failed states, terrorists, criminals, drug addicts, illegal immigrants etc), a world of repressive, unattainable images of fashionable and sexualised ‘beauty and perfection’, is an ideal world for a politician and marketer. In a scary, overwhelming world infantilised adults, ‘kidults’ (Patrick White), will want to cling to big daddies or mummies. The latter will provide them with a shiny market package to buy of simplified formulas and ‘solutions’, naïve ‘either/or’ choices between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, sound bites and images instead of ideas, the aura of confidence and strong decisiveness, quick and short-term technical fixes.

And, conversely, big daddies and mummies need the anxious children to cement their own ‘wisdom’, ‘leadership’ and power. Unconsciously infantile themselves in their compensating hunger for power, they can have no true interest in the encouragement of self-confident, anxiety-free, mature individuals who can critically think for themselves. The latter are in fact potentially dangerous to both economic and political power elites because they would inevitably tend to understand, question and reject both the tactics of fear and the heteronomous ‘solutions’ offered by elites as in fact constituting major elements of the systemic problems they profess to solve or alleviate.

In sum, the shepherds need the sheep as much as the sheep need the shepherds. Shepherds depend on the consent and voluntary slavery of the sheep. The end of the reign of the shepherds (the ‘revolution’) would be on the day the sheep simply decided to no longer be sheep and walked away from the shepherds. Alternatively, ‘for the human species, the price for refusing to grow up could prove high indeed.’

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~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on October 22, 2012.

2 Responses to “On Infantilisation”

  1. Your essay very insightfully highlights the nature of the problem from a socio/political perspective and will hopefully help in the raising of consciousness to our entrapment in infantilism. However, from a depth psychology perspective the big black, empty hole of the narcissistic wounding inside us is deeply unconscious and requires a lot of painstaking work for the deconstruction of the false ego to merge into the reality of a mature being. The reversion to infantilism seems entrenched as the consumer society is run on the refrain “I can’t get no satisfaction” unless people start to “wake up” to the false egoic structures their upbringing, education and cultural values have conditioned in them and seek ways to grow themselves up. You have articulated one of the greatest challenges of our times.

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