This is a chapter from the book:
Psychology of the Private Individual

Chapter 6: Politics — Democratic servile consciousness

Bourgeois individuals are “politicized” when they are positively concerned about the organization of the political rule they are subjected to. They are completely at ease speaking of the compulsory national relationship they have to obey as a community they want: “we.” All the annoyances the state causes them is the starting point for critical opinions aimed at improving its rule. Hostility to rule is not declared in these opinions; rather, politics is constructively confronted with alternatives for carrying it out.

In all their variety, the critical judgments of responsible citizens achieve in substance only one thing: they split off the negative effects of politics from its purpose, so that those affected act disappointed — which can only be done by consistently disregarding the economic reason for state power. As far as the formal side of civic opinion forming is concerned — the attitude displayed — one cannot fail to notice in all the griping the pretended disappointment, the separation between expressed complaint and practical intent. Even the most indignant and disparaging opinion is recognizably the utterance of an individual who attaches no importance to his own judgment and is not refusing obedience, who is not the least bit serious about looking for ways and means of putting his objection into practice.

When arguing as “we taxpayers,” those affected feign an attitude of entitlement — the pack of journalists is busy acting for everyone in this way — an attitude that is always completed by the “demand” for others to be restricted more thoroughly. Statesmanlike recipes for dealing with all those who “go too far” — always sparing the ruling class — rank alongside scornful findings on “one’s” representatives, “one’s” trampled-on rights, and inappropriate social, economic and foreign policies. Civil servants incur the sincerest hatred from the regulars at the local pub, while a career in the civil service would be just the right thing for one’s own children, and the nation’s highest civil servants are shown a respect that can easily compete with the worship of pre-bourgeois ruling figures. A citizen will let a presidential candidate talk about things, and prescribe them, as “objective necessities” in a way he would never let his neighbor get away with. Election campaigns are conducted, and decided by citizens entitled to vote, according to criteria that show not even a semblance of “rational” (= calculating) reflection, so that election campaigns are subject to fierce criticism of their style on the part of their central figures.

The democratic state thus always includes a minority of disappointed devotees of a stronger state, whose “arguments” are admittedly shared by the majority. They inspire anti-Fascist fans of a just state to try to rescue and expand the substance of democracy — and there is also the oppositional alternative of a “life without repression”[1] that begins here and now.

For the rest, both rightists and leftists can feel entitled to commit crimes as political practice, claiming that the power exercised by the state doesn’t do justice to their notion of justice. The former want order to be properly established at last; the latter personally declare war on it. And neither line of terrorism needs to worry about its “breeding ground.” It’s the same one.


The critique of democratic consciousness and the analysis of political practice is not a psychological matter. It aims at refuting the arguments that political adversaries bring to bear for their cause, showing the untruthfulness of their arguments, and denouncing the interests their arguments are meant for. For that reason, this chapter does not describe democracy and misguided struggles for and against it,[2] but merely the feats of the mind that are performed by a submissive free will. It deals with the attitude of individuals who are confronted with the effects of the power of the state “superstructure” while agreeing to it, and who moreover always judge their own economic experience by the standard of fair treatment of a righteous citizen.

6.2. Self-assured submissiveness: the political “we”

In the civic “we” that he insists on using when discussing every affair of state, the modern individual aligns himself in all his righteousness with the rule he submits to. He generously overlooks society’s antagonisms and discusses himself and his interests as the actual purpose of political power. While those who have a say and benefit from the relations of power that protect person and property always say “we” when making demands on the losers, the latter allow themselves the noble gesture of consenting by merely complaining that this “we” is poorly realized. The submission they have carried out customarily becomes an argument for the right to make critical comments, so that these comments never lose their character of expressed disappointment. The ploy of being a taxpayer, with which one proves oneself definitely entitled to get worked up over some government measure, illuminates the desolate need of citizens who are so smug about their blasé attitude toward power: their declared interests always boil down to their wish that the state not bestow so many favors on others, or as the case may be, that it has to be stricter in dispensing justice to them, while the complaining individuals pose as its legitimate victims. When regulars talking politics at the pub resort as citizens to badmouthing injustice from those “on top” like this, their objection ends all debate: they don’t find some deplorable state of affairs, get incensed about it and then seek the reasons for it; much less ponder the question, “What is to be done?”[3] because the pride of a righteous person displeased with his government has been fully satisfied with his expressed disappointment. Statesmen of all orders of magnitude are well aware of this and “explain” their every action as helping to assert the inalienable right of taxpayers. No matter whether they are putting up nuclear power plants or building up the army and celebrating public tattoos to swear in drafted recruits — they always land at the satisfaction being given to the esteemed taxpayer.

6.3. Constructive criticism

So there is actually some truth to the rumor that political power in a democracy lives on the criticism of those who feel the brunt of it. For the criticism mustered by all responsible citizens — responsible because they’re concerned with getting recognition for their righteousness — amounts to nothing more than the formal accusation of the state of failing to comply with its principles, which they wholeheartedly share; not exactly a declaration of war on the public power. Those affected do not quarrel with their state on the basis of a cost-benefit calculation; rather, they act as if they were starting this calculation anew every day and discovering their commonwealth hardly paid off any more. Being on the receiving end simply is not their argument, because they insist on the standards set by the state for its “mission,” deriving from this above all else the moral authority to throw their disadvantage into the discussion. Instead of registering an objection, they untiringly agree in their accusations with friend and foe alike on principles against which “one” allows not a single word to be said: the entirety of democratic criticism is made up of offensively puffed-up hypocrisy, the insistence that one is being cheated out of accepted values, out of the reward for one’s righteousness.

When disappointed individuals, so self-assured in their disappointment, follow up their “criticism” with the answer to the question of guilt, they always end up finding the state and its representatives not guilty. After all, their agreement when it comes to “principles,” by which they legitimize their indignation, represents an abstraction they have carried out from the purpose of all politics, so that the accusation that accepted purposes have not been carried out can be productively elaborated. Many a statesman must put up with being attacked as a would-be benefactor because he is unable to cope with his party, this or that force, or just “developments” per se. Such phantom issues, which make ruling so difficult, are conjured up in reams by an “ordinary person” — without a first-class diploma or professional license — when he certifies one politician as being “incompetent” while announcing his trust in another for being equal to the “problems”: the arms race, wage-price spiral, bureaucracy, technical progress, growth, political apathy, national debt — and whatever other things one might dream up that politicians have to cope with.

The harsh criticism with which the individual, fully aware of the seriousness of the situation, finally resolves to make his choice at the polls always goes essentially along the same lines: incompetence in achieving everything the citizen thinks matters in politics. As a voter, the self-assured citizen either allows that his rulers “know their business” or else denies it, and in this method, which reflects little knowledge of what goes on in politics, the loyal subject achieves his finest quid pro quo: he manages to act as if he were the inspector and touchstone of a political power solely out to use him — but only by once again making the refutation of his standpoint part and parcel of it. He votes for the “lesser evil” and even thinks he’s clever for realizing that his wishes will not be fulfilled by the future government. That is why he attaches little importance to the dim view he takes of politicians — he simply votes for the “evil” that most appeals to him personally, because it presents itself entirely the way he as a citizen would act if he were a politician!

6.4. Nation as sentiment and character

A righteous person won’t hear anything against the “we” in whose name alone demands are made and criticism is voiced in a democratic community. After all, this “we” is the point of view from which he in all seriousness judges everything that happens to him, i.e., organizes down to the last detail his view of the “forces” that make this world go round and his worries and pleasures concerning them. In nationalism, the citizen’s hypocrisy turns honest, and indeed all the more so, the more consistently the calculations of personal gain he pins on it are wrecked by the authority’s actual deeds: he shows pride and indignation in the name and in the interest of the rule with which he, as a self-assured subject, both knows himself to be, and feels, joined in solidarity, even and especially when its momentarily topmost executors do not suit him.

National sentiment is never at a loss for occasions to express itself, even if its holder’s notion of how the nation’s interests are faring has nothing much to do with how they are actually being carried out. In his view, the way the age of imperialism has happily so completely seen through the dividing up and sorting out of mankind according to citizenship is the result and the expression of a kind of a fairly natural diversity of the various peoples; and just as the righteous citizen, who in other contexts regards many a national comrade to all intents and purposes as enemies and wants them treated as such, might now forgive(s) them in the name of their common nation — unless conversely he crowns his proclamation of justice for them with the utmost accusation of national treason! — he finds foreigners suspicious simply because they are not natives: doesn’t the disposition to comply with a rule other than one’s own have to entail a different and therefore inferior or at least questionable sort of righteousness? Although the citizen, thinking open-mindedly along the same lines as his government and its public opinion, lets them dispel worries of this kind as soon as reasons of state dictate a higher degree of “friendship among peoples” with a neighbor, he is very quick to be reminded of them again — and not even the most dizzying swings in the configuration of this ethnology for the people will make a decent person draw the conclusion that he is making himself the useful idiot for his rulers’ diplomacy by his multiply varied and embroidered aversion to foreign peoples. Every difference to the rest of the world that he discovers in his own national “we” makes him proud, even if he knows nothing about the matter in question and doesn’t even think much of it himself. When this absurd comparison becomes a public event, masses that otherwise never come together for a normal demonstration then readily demonstrate how much the nation’s honor actually means to them quite personally. Everyone, in Germany for instance, has cobbled together some conception of history from won or lost soccer games, wars waged by past rulers and tyrants, the “lost” Second World War, and the regained international standing of German industry, cobbled in such a way that it does the holder, be he professor or hairdresser, the desired service, that is, provide his imagination with the means for producing pride and indignation in just the mixture and with the thrust required by the international situation of the moment — and for his own efforts to keep up with the march of history. When a war is finally on the agenda again, its organizer has always been able to rely on its subjects’ habit of regarding even their own existence with considerable aplomb from the point of view that the national “spirit of resistance” is without doubt historically justified. And it can rely equally on its intellectuals, who normally cultivate their national pride chiefly or exclusively on the lofty level of the nobler cultural riches, and therefore like to combine it with plenty of scorn for the “crude” nationalism of the common people and a cosmopolitan attitude fed by this scorn and a special preference for particular peoples; concerning the lie and the brutal truth of the general heading “defense” under which modern states carry out their worldwide terrorism, the national intelligentsia at most come up with fastidious doubts about the “unpolished” style displayed by the national authority in this area.

Naturally, the everyday effort of enjoying or suffering along with the presented successes or failures of one’s own nation also bears its fruits in the inner life of individuals so intensively occupied. Someone who makes it a habit of especially esteeming or disdaining specific idiocies of bourgeois life in himself and others under the heading of national characteristics, and thus in either case cultivating them as such, does not first need to take such a radical step as marrying from the point of view of racial hygene to end up actually producing a “national character” in himself and his children. It is not naively, but with a calculating orientation of their own prejudices and preferences according to the customs esteemed or disdained as national, that modern citizens devote a good part of their lifetime to the all too successful effort to develop, quite beyond all real regional differences in living conditions, a special narrow-mindedness that makes their fatal wish come true: of their own free will being character masks of that national “we” that they celebrate in their national anthem with a pleasurable shudder.

6.5. Radical dissent: The fight for the right to criticize

The intention, easily seen in all critical grumbling, not to overly embarrass one’s own self-esteem with the submission one practices, that is, to at least accompany it by opinion that testifies to a free will — this obviously pretended insistence on one’s own interests constitutes for the citizen the starting point for various actions within the framework of a “movement.” After all, the contradiction between more or less vociferously proclaiming one’s discontent and political pussyfooting quite logically provokes the accusation that he should either keep his mouth shut or give his opinion credibility by “getting involved.”

Of course there is nothing good about his resolving to get serious about his critical attitude toward the state. It matters to the utmost what sort of discontent in which movement with what goals is overcoming the “contradiction between theory and practice”! When self-assured citizens and nationalists lament the decay of their political rule and think all their righteousness and willingness to make sacrifices deserves better appreciation and utilization by the state, they can “get involved” in a fascist organization, blame just about everything that displeases them on the state being too lax and degenerate — and become violent models for friends of the people who have not yet “gotten involved.” When disappointed citizens judge their political rule by the entitlements it “really should” concede to its righteous subjects but “actually” denies them, the result is a “fight for rights,” for purchasing power and working-class children at universities — that is, a movement opposing “state monopoly capitalism.” The point of view of needs that are refused recognition by state “repression” can also be applied to the transition from mere griping to a “practical” movement, and a look at “meaningful” and “alternative” living shows that opposition put into practice occasionally turns into a new sort of contentedness as well as a line of business.

Ideologists of democracy firstly will not hear anything about the differences that come about when criticism stops being the theoretical accompaniment to practical submission; for the mere difference to good conduct suffices to draw the line between the opposition’s “world views” and democrats’ “reason.” Secondly, this legal finding is at the same time very well suited for making “deviant behavior” and “psychological dispositions” responsible as the reason for such entirely incomprehensible practices, so that the democratic foundations of the extrademocratic spectrum are made to disappear psychologically.

Crime I: Terror as a just use of force, autonomously

Finally, the question of the breeding ground for terrorism would be taken care of if something other than the criminal nature of the deviance were attested to. For it is the hypocritical demand to “get involved,” with which especially political reps on the campaign trail try to induce young people to join in constructively, that is taken dead seriously by terrorists in their own way. They are also quite taken with the thinking of politicians that a juster use of force can achieve a lot of good. They even appreciate the advice, “If you don’t like it here, get lost!” which attests to democratic longing for appropriate treatment of leftists: some people just “deserve” freedom and others don’t. Since terrorists of “leftist” origin are thus by no means cynical, instead directing the weight of morality against its hypocritical beneficiaries who always use force, they turn into advocates and engineers of quite exquisite crimes that are committed not out of self-interest but for the people.

Terrorists from the “right,” who condemn the people in the name of law and order and are not squeamish about executing their verdict, complete the wealth of alternatives exhibited by the democratic reconciliation of “theory and practice,” discontent and action. So there is no lack of opportunities for true democrats, who consider their submission to be a nonviolent state of affairs, to be alarmed by “the use of force as a means of politics” — otherwise, especially in wartime, they don’t have time to be.

6.6. Education for freedom and responsibility

In their efforts to make children into useful adults, schools and parents are exceedingly economical with the knowledge and ability they pass on to the new generation — unerringly producing precisely in this way the correct views and attitudes in the young mind. In mom and dad’s compliments on going to bed and getting up early, which is known to make a man healthy, wealthy and wise, a quick child soon enough hears the message that even with sleeping, the crucial thing is to prove some virtue in order to earn the next “pleasure”; the next day the same lesson is repeated. For a child just starting school it therefore represents as a rule nothing new for his first arithmetic and writing efforts to be immediately acknowledged in the form of praise or reproach, i.e., as proof of those virtues such as “learning aptitude” and “eagerness to learn,” “independent thinking” and “group spirit,” that developmental psychologists have long since theoretically expounded as natural determinants of the school-educated mind. For a pupil accustomed to regarding and exercising his mind not as such but as a test of his special “personality,” the requirement to hold forth in essays on arbitrary subjects, as untroubled by any knowledge of them as possible, in such a way as to declare one’s own personal sympathy for or aversion to them with a successful semblance of reasoning — this requirement poses no intellectual problem, but solely this problem of proving himself. Raising up the gradually maturing personality to “share responsibility in shaping” school life complements an education of heart and mind that makes it a habit of mind to ferret out in every topic presented an opportunity to demonstrate a critical ability, sense of responsibility and independence, that is, to practice knowledge as a matter of intellectual hypocrisy. The subsumption of learning under the rules of the art of entering into an important relationship with the objects of learning — enforced at school under the pressure of grading by ever so understanding teachers — is given some refinement by the ideas of communication science, which, in its thinking and argumentation, right from the start excludes the matter under discussion and the effort of comprehending and explaining, taking the mere fact that language occurs and communication happens as the occasion to declare all sorts of partnership-based virtues of tearing into each other to be the “actual” matter at hand — so that in the end one can even abstract lightheartedly from the facts of speaking itself. Translated into action, this madness leads to all sorts of successful techniques for accustoming both young and old to the illusion of being called upon to take responsibility for the way things go, without the slightest detour via the semblance of an intellectual examination of the world. Free and easy, the individual “experiences” himself in role play as potential capitalist, unemployed person or head of government, thereby attaining in any case one thing: the standpoint of a profound understanding for the world whose prime mover he pretends to be. And what’s good for the flower children with their kindergarten notions has long since been good for today’s university students.


[1] Cf. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization.

[2] Cf. The Democratic State: Critique of Bourgeois Sovereignty.

[3] Cf. Lenin’s What is to be done? in which he outlines the tasks of the workers’ movement and the revolutionary party.