Originally published in Black Oak Presents, Spring 2009 issue
There’s an alarming tendency among radical intellectuals to dismiss those who don’t “get it” as mere lambs being led to slaughter – meek “sheeple”. But how does this reflect on us, our values, and our mentality vis a vis those sustaining the State?
It’s easy to understand the widespread frustration in anti-authoritarian circles over people who seemingly have failed to seek enlightenment about the hegemonic hubris we face. Watch people’s reactions when you question one tenet of the Statist religion; they’ll become angry, defensive, and try to shut down the discussion. They’ll often poison the dialogue by questioning your intelligence, doubting your sanity and besmirching your personal character – assuming they even let you talk in the first place! We’re “crazy” or “naïve” or “unrealistic” for expressing our unyielding dissatisfaction with the status quo, for upholding the same moral standards to Presidents and Congressmen that we apply to everyone else. Well, if we are “crazy extremists” then the Statist horde must be a pack of naïve “sheep”, ha!
Hence there are many who heap scorn on those perky activists who implore us to “Rock the Vote!”, the “moderates” who are afraid of conviction, the advocates of “good government”, and the troops whose blood feeds the Machine. It’s easy and fun to hang out on forums and websites ripping on the ignorant Joe and Jane Sixpacks who put up with it all: “These people only want bread and circuses and HBO! We could have something better but people are too stupid and weak! Oh forget them, we’re all screwed anyway!”
Just remember that you were likely a “sheep” once too.
Alas, this sort of insular arrogance is not only more prevalent than we’d like to admit, it’s our own worst enemy. The idea of stupid, hopeless “sheeple” evokes the contempt that a hardcore Statist has for human ability, reason, freedom, and – for lack of a better word – spirit.
I often argue that there exists a terribly negative psychology belying the State and related institutions. It’s a subtle, malevolent, cynical view of life and human nature and existence; a view of the world as something to be feared – a dark, scary place filled with decadent people, unpredictable catastrophes, and endless problems that, naturally, only the State can address. Every law, every program, every crusade, every war, every act of social engineering on their part implies that people are only fit to be herded like disobedient livestock. And people buy it.
It’s this psychology at work when someone goes into near-hysterics upon hearing the most timid of anti-State arguments. It’s what makes people mumble, “Neither anarchy nor limited government can work, because people are not perfect.” Look at how people throw up their hands and put up with Statist excesses: “What do I know? Who am I to challenge this system? Even if I don’t like it, it’s the lesser of two evils.” It’s what makes people turn to strong leaders and dictators in times of crises. Perhaps this is a deep-seated lack of self-esteem and an internalized need for authority figures in an intimidating world? At any rate, we don’t need hired goons to maintain this hegemony because we tear our own selves down; we convince ourselves of the lack of alternatives. Thus the State depends on (and encourages) psychological repression just as much as any overt act of oppression.
When people contemptuously dismiss others as “sheep” it feeds into and reinforces this cynical mentality, not in the minds of the so-called “sheep” but rather the ones who are supposed to be proposing a radical alternative! The more one dismisses those who don’t “get it” (or even snubs his allies who don’t fall lock-step with him on every issue), the less likely he is to see any hope of victory, and the less he bothers to strive for it. Finally, he rationalizes his failures by labeling everyone else as somehow unworthy or inadequate.
Look at how the various national governments tear people down and lull us out of conceiving saner alternatives: they get in the way of peaceful, enterprising entrepreneurs; they murder foreigners with bombs; they convince us to fear phantom terrorists or even our own neighbors; they use welfare checks, feel-good racial hiring quotas, and moral crusades “for the children” as bribery for votes; they pressure us to give our lives for a comfortable sense of “God and Country”; they use the media and schools to endear us to the State as not a criminal gang but rather a benefactor…the list goes on. And just as people believe that they need all this hubris in order to have a functioning, sane society, so do haughty intellectuals believe that people are weak and stupid enough to deserve it.
In a perverse and subtle way, our cynicism and silence in the face of all this hubris serves as a tacit stamp of approval and a grand act of capitulation equal to that of the most loyal Federal employee.
Another way this attitude hurts the cause has to do with our lack of solidarity. Libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, syndicalists, agorists, mutualists, eco-anarchists…our diversity is a good thing but a certain “us versus them” mentality has arisen that often gets taken too far. It matters little whether we’re talking about various inter-factional feuds or “us” (the enlightened radicals) versus “them” (the unenlightened general public) because the effect is the same.
These attitudes reinforce our image and status as outsiders, drive away potential allies among the public we wish to radicalize, and alienate us from our goal of revolution. Most poignantly, they evoke the same kind of divisions on which the modern social-democratic State is based. After all, if the State is a monopoly on legal violence, then politics is the means by which one channels that violence in order to get what he wants. It’s a harried rat-race for power and influence, a zero-sum game in which one party must win and the other must lose – thus all are pitted against each other in order to advance their own interests and are eventually alienated from each other. “Red States” versus “Blue States” is just the tip of the iceberg. With this thinking we fall into the same psychological trap that keeps the State so strong. “Divide and conquer” indeed.
A critic of mine once chided me, “Your problem is that you give people too much credit!” to which I responded, “Maybe your problem is that you don’t give them enough.” People do have minds of their own; the fact that they’ve not been able to “get it” suggests that their finite energies are being channeled into things that don’t favor liberty and self-empowerment. The intelligentsia, activists, busybodies, corporate thugs, politicians – people who make their living by controlling others and re-shaping society in their image using the coercive force of the State – quite naturally have an intense fear of self-empowered people who can resist their hubris. They’d much rather have malleable converts for their purposes.
You’d expect anti-Statist radicals to unanimously hold the alternative view – that people are not like Play-Doh, to be molded and twisted into one’s personal orthodoxy – yet we can see among certain parties an insular, arrogant dismissal of people who aren’t their devoted followers. Observations of any number of anarchist book fairs, websites, and activist functions suggest that we have a surprising number of such “followers” indeed. In one corner we have the folks sporting their Ché t-shirts and their black flags, parroting Bakunin and Kropotkin, and bowing before the altar of Chomsky. In the other corner we have the folks who hang on to Ludwig von Mises’ every word like Gospel, place unquestioning faith in the free market economy’s ability to solve all our earthly worries, and who think Somalia (which lacks a strong central government) is a beacon of hope lighting the way for a future “Ancapistan”.
Ah, but everybody else is supposed to be a lamb being led to the Statist slaughterhouse…right?
A lot of this boils down to a frustrated desire for victory. Just as Statists wish to change the world, so do we; we just lack the critical mass to get the revolution going, our allies are few and far between, and we have few victories to celebrate. It seems Statism is winning and folks want someone to scapegoat as they dive deeper into their own intellectual and strategic lethargy. Hence they lash out at the “sheeple” as a psychological projection of their own feelings of desperation and despair. I’m tempted to just dismiss this as something like sour grapes, but ultimately this sort of thinking in radical circles evokes the desire for malleable converts on the part of hardcore Statist con artists eager to do some social engineering at everyone’s expense.
What kind of “anarchism” is this? Sheep are for shepherds, not free people!
What kind of values serve as the antidote to this hubris? An alternative view of humanity as having no right to be anything other than great, a view of people not as peons who deserve their oppression but rather the kind of hardy, pensive, compassionate, courageous people who desire to “live free or die”, who don’t need rulers. Self-empowerment gives one the inner strength, strategic mentality, integrity and courage to stand up to the amoral State. If we can send a man to the Moon and back, surely teaching him to flip the bird at the military-industrial-welfare complex shouldn’t be all that big a deal?
To summarize, the very concept of “sheeple” is perilous because it evokes the kind of arrogance, contempt and deep-rooted fear the State has for free, motivated and empowered people. It brings radicals dangerously close to thinking along the same lines as hard-core Statists even as we attempt to offer an alternative way. Not only does this sort of defeatist hypocrisy sap the strength one needs to stand firm against equally defeatist Statist psychology, it alienates us from those we strive to radicalize and it demoralizes us in the end as our integrity rots like a corpse. It assumes, also, that there are some who are elite; superior; “above the herd”; fit to rule over the weak herd – which is the cause of so many of our problems with illegitimate authority in the first place!
But most of all, it fails to present us as who we are – visionaries far ahead of our time, with a profoundly positive and liberating vision for a seemingly insane world.