Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Appeal of Mass Movements

David Brooks has a good column today summarizing what Eric Hoffer's The True Believer (1951) says about the appeal of extremist movements like the Islamic State:
Hoffer distinguished between practical organizations and mass movements. The former, like a company or a school, offer opportunities for self-advancement. The central preoccupation of a mass movement, on the other hand, is self-sacrifice. The purpose of an organization like ISIS is to get people to negate themselves for a larger cause. . . .

The people who serve mass movements are not revolting against oppression. They are driven primarily by frustration. Their personal ambitions are unfulfilled. They have lost faith in their own abilities to realize their dreams. They sometimes live with an unrelieved boredom. Freedom aggravates their sense of frustration because they have no one to blame but themselves for their perceived mediocrity. Fanatics, the French philosopher Ernest Renan argued, fear liberty more than they fear persecution.

The successful mass movement tells such people that the cause of their frustration is outside themselves, and that the only way to alter their personal situation is to transform the world in some radical way.

To nurture this self-sacrificing attitude, the successful mass movement first denigrates the present. Its doctrine celebrates a glorious past and describes a utopian future, but the present is just an uninspiring pit. The golden future begins to seem more vivid and real than the present, and in this way the true believer begins to dissociate herself from the everyday facts of her life: Her home, her town, even her new child. Self-sacrifice is an irrational act, so mass movements get their followers to believe that ultimate truth exists in another realm and cannot be derived from lived experience and direct observation.

Next mass movements denigrate the individual self. Everything that is unique about an individual is either criticized, forbidden or diminished. The individual’s identity is defined by the collective group identity, and fortified by a cultivated hatred for other groups.

There’s a lot of self-renunciation going on here. Ironically the true believer’s feeling that he is selfless can lead to arrogance and merciless cruelty. It can also be addictive. If the true believer permitted himself to lose faith in his creed then all that self-imposed suffering would have been for nothing.

These movements generate a lot of hatred. But ultimately, Hoffer argues, they are driven by a wild hope. They believe an imminent perfect future can be realized if they proceed recklessly to destroy the present. The glorious end times are just around the corner.
The problem with such a definition is that many different sorts of human activities focus on transformation through self-sacrifice, from dieting to parenting to religion. I think the dynamic Hoffer described is present throughout human life as a minor theme; certainly you see echoes of this in all ideological politics. (Ask not what your country can do for you. . . .) Plus mass movements often do offer opportunities for advancement, since they need officers and managers. Which makes defining a dangerous political movement as tricky as defining a "cult". A movement like the Islamic State, Nazism or Soviet Communism takes self-sacrifice and self-negation in the pursuit of utopia to an extreme level, but I am not sure that is what makes them dangerous. What makes them dangerous is their ready willingness to kill.


Unknown said...

I am also skeptical about Hoffer. For one thing, American mass movements and extremist political ideas tend to have virtually no notion of self-sacrifice. The basically American theology of "rapture" is typical; what other culture has put forth an entirely painless notion of end-of-times salvation?

For another, I'm not fond of theories that amount to elaborations on the statement: "Life is hard. Why can't all these people just suck it up and deal, the way I did? They must be weak." Erich Fromm's theory of dictatorship is the worst of these, but Hoffer's seems right up there to me.

leif said...

Hoffer's now decades-old points seem to confuse *mass* movements with small-scale cults, freakshows and fringe groups, for which these tenets are reference material and which are far more common.

I wasn't around for WWII or 1951 either, but I gather much of the world was still feeling a mix of postwar surge and sting at that point, and thus I wonder if Nazism and Japanese suicide bombers were high on his list for a 'movement' he might have typifed as mass.

@David, I think you're right that self-sacrifice has largely fallen out of the equation; the 'me' generation has seen to that. Nonetheless, look at many of the mass murders in recent years: often they end in suicide or a situation the perps simply *had* to know would become hopeless and possibly end in their own deaths. This does suggest that self-sacrifice remains a theme, but most frequently on a small scale.