The sense of being in control is a more pressing need than not making things worse, but collective control is not a thing. If you give more power to someone in order to get back some sense of control, you are bound to get disappointed.
Do you want to take back control? You’re right. But take it back over your own life – and not over others’. And definitely not through empowering a strongman and your government.
Do you want to know what “deplorables” want? You don’t have to psychoanalyze them. There’s no need to dig deep into big data (and come up with whatever you were looking for). It is written on their flag. It is their battle cry. They want to take control. In other words, they don’t want to feel helpless.
I write a lot about the sense of helplessness – not feeling in control – and how it is just as important to understand the demand for populism as fear is. Fear (security or economic anxiety) can only melt down brains if it is paired with helplessness. If you feel that you can fight back or work harder, you will not fall for a populist or an autocrat. Populists promise to make fear and helplessness go away – but their tools are fearmongering and making you even more helpless with their laws and massive state control.
The welfare state had a good run in silencing fear. But it did not address the sense of helplessness. It is still not regarded as a relevant factor in understanding politics.
Every boy grows up with big dreams. To become a superhero, someone who makes a difference. Definitely someone who leaves a mark on the future. Most of us settle for much less. We leave a mark in the form of our offspring. We control our own lives – more or less. We are lucky enough to get some sense of control – that our efforts contribute to our well-being and if our well-being is threatened, there is something we can do about it.
But not everyone is so lucky. Some don’t have any sense of control. They don’t get to make a difference, to leave a mark on the world. They don’t see the connection between effort and reward – because sometimes there isn’t any. And it’s not just because they don’t have the magical “skills” that catapult you to a higher economic status, to a place where effort will at least pay the rent. Don’t be too condescending.
If you never understood why some people break things even though they could just leave it alone – it is because you really don’t understand what their real priorities are. Chances are they don’t understand it either. The rage of helplessness is even less articulate than the hatred that stems from fear. We don’t even have the vocabulary for it yet.
When it comes to actual priorities, not just logical ones, feeling in control is often more important than being prosperous. And destruction is a form of control – achievable for even those who couldn’t approach their own lives constructively.
Feeling in control definitely beats not making things worse.
If we were to chart our actual hierarchy of needs, the sense of control would come way before prosperity comes. And it would beat the status quo and not destroying things by miles.
If your options are to 1) stand aside helplessly or 2) smash – you will feel that smashing is a better option. Because smashing things is some sort of control.
If you don’t get the control to improve things – you won’t want to leave them as they are. You will smash them to take control.
This is what’s happening in the developed world right now. The welfare state can no longer silence the helpless. Apart from economic safety they also want to feel in control. Not to feel helpless. So they smash.
But even they will get disappointed.
Strongmen only offer collective control. That is not a thing
The kind of control these strongmen offer is not even actual, real control. The sentiment they ride is to make the painful sense of helplessness go away – but the answer they offer is not control. It is the illusion of control.
The same way people’s vague desire for freedom is regularly exploited by dishonest nationalists by offering collective, national freedom as a fake solution, the desire to feel in control is exploited by offering collective control instead. Class-based control. Race-based control. Location-of-birth-based control. Religion-based control.
Base it on whatever suits your taste and upbringing, collective control is not control. It is handing over control to whoever promises to represent your preferred group. And therein lies the dishonesty. These uninhibited demagogues only ever offer themselves as a solution. But they despise you just as your “establishment” candidate does. They definitely insult your intellect more than the “establishment”. They are also establishment.
Empowering strongmen =/= Empowering yourself
Identifying with the leader is one of the basic tenets of authoritarian thinking. We all do it from time to time. When we discuss what policies would be beneficial if enacted on us. Us, the non-leaders. When we think like that we 1) unconsciously follow the indoctrination of history textbooks that only ever regarded history from the angle of leaders, and 2) we fall in the trap of central planning mindset. We are also not ourselves in head – we are our leaders.
So when it comes to giving more power to them we are infinitely more likely to do so – since we have imagined ourselves to be in their shoes and an in their heads so often.
Yes, individuals should get back control
The answer is, naturally, empowerment. But not some vague, collective, fake-empowerment which is ultimately just another plot by a new king to gain and grow his power – but genuine, individual empowerment. Like less regulation. Less rules. Less criminalisation of trial and error.
Giving back control is stopping to protect people so much they aren’t allowed to do anything for their own prosperity anymore. Yes, they often do stupid things. And sometimes they don’t even learn from their failures. Or learn the wrong lessons – such as “taking back control” by giving it to a strongman.
But the alternative to empowering the individual is what we’re seeing today – and it will get even worse in the coming years. Closing economies and closing minds, chest-thumping and hatred, scapegoating and irrational fear. And absolutely no fear of the real threats to our freedom, to our independence and to our control over our own lives. No fear from the strongman – but mortal hatred of those who want to keep minds and borders open.
All in the name of taking back the fake control that is Trump, Brexit, or any other form of nationalism.