Our Stockholm Syndrome

In the early 1970s there was a spate of kidnappings that received such widespread  attention that even my third-grade class played kidnapping at recess (when we took a break from playing Vietnam). Ah, the seventies.

The most famous, and bizarre, domestic kidnapping was that of Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress who was nabbed in 1974 by an urban guerrilla group with whom she was later videoed helping out in a bank robbery while wielding a semi-automatic weapon. Think of her as a béret-wearing Paris Hilton: vacuous, filthy rich and 19, but living in an era of vast social upheaval.

The fact that the granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (immortalized by Orson Wells in Citizen Kane) bonded with and defended her  Maoist captors came to be known as Stockholm Syndrome.

This capture-bonding phenomenon was named after the previous year’s kidnapping of several bank employees in that city.

Upon their release after six days in a vault, the bank hostages hugged their captors, defended them and refused government assistance. This “traumatic bonding” is defined by psychologists as “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.” It’s not exclusively applied to hostages and in some ways it’s not too dissimilar from the dynamic in many domestic abuse cases where the victim defends her abuser.

This diagnosis seems to fit the current political stance of a huge swath of US progressives who are smart, politically engaged, well-informed and yet defend and even embrace the Obama administration’s actions in the midst of its role in dismantling the last shreds of our social welfare state.

In a sense, they are captives of a worldview that admits no alternative to a mild tweaking of the status quo.

It is irrefutable that Obama and the Democrats are playing a disastrous role in retaining our regressive tax structure and solidifying the falsehood that “entitlements” like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid must be cut. Even the New York Times, which daily repeats this mythology, was compelled to describe the latest “fiscal cliff” deal this way:

Just a few years ago, the tax deal pushed through Congress on Tuesday would have been a Republican fiscal fantasy, a sweeping bill that locks in virtually all of the Bush-era tax cuts, exempts almost all estates from taxation, and enshrines the former president’s credo that dividends and capital gains should be taxed equally and gently.

In an interview with Barbara Walters in early December, Obama openly discussed raising the Social Security eligibility age from 65 to 67, and he frequently references the “need for spending cuts” of nearly two trillion dollars. In a typical liberal defense of Obama, the Washington Post‘s Jamelle Bouie recently took on the Republicans’ attacks on Obama by insisting, quite truthfully, that “Obama has already agreed to big spending cuts.

There are already excellent news analysis pieces, such as Lance Selfa’s “Holding all the cards…and they still folded” about the New Year’s deal and the coming slash-and-burn attack on desperately needed social services, so I won’t bother repeating those arguments here.

But leftists do need to grasp what lies beneath our nation’s Stockholm Syndrome because otherwise we just become outraged at some of the very people, self-described liberals and progressives, who must be won over to breaking with the Dems if a broad and active left is to ever succeed in challenging the system.

In my experience, progressives are mostly not ignorant or indifferent to the plight of working class and poor people bearing the brunt of our Not-So-Great Depression. In fact, many are themselves spiraling downward and leading increasingly less financially secure lives. No, apathy and cluelessness are not sufficient explanations for the widespread defense of Obama and co. among contemporary progressives.

Naturally, there is the GOP itself, made up of the nastiest, most deranged piffleheads the American Empire has ever produced. They terrify all of us and embody late capitalism’s criminal incapacity for empathy. Nothing more need be said about them.

The weakness of the US left, only now becoming a bit more robust in the post-Occupy era, is a symptom not a cause.

At least one explanation comes back to me over and over again, as I spend a fair amount of both my personal life and speaking gigs among progressives who are not yet convinced that the system either can or must be dismantled. To most, the persistence of society based on class inequality appears as inevitable as morning follows night. And so the best progressives hope for, or at least believe is possible, are small changes.

This near-religious faith in the inevitability of inequality will be our doom.

That thought washes over me whenever I read historical accounts of tumultuous upheavals. The ongoing ones in the Middle East are still too close and unresolved  to afford the kind of perspective that allows many—though not all—to believe in the transformative potential of collective social action. Though a growing cadre of radicalized youth from Athens and Cairo to New York appears to have broken from capitalism’s dogma of social stagnation.

Spending Christmas break reading the fascinating biography of Karl and Jenny Marx, Love and Capital, forced me to think about this more deeply. Human society has existed for at least tens of thousands of years, class society for just a few thousand and capitalism itself less than 200 years.

In many ways, our society is unrecognizable from the one Marx was living in, yet like the trailer to a movie its basic features could be previewed through a mid-nineteenth century lens. And all throughout, every significant bit of progress from urban sanitation to basic human rights was established through mass risings.

What seemed normal in 1830, like emperors and kings, was rendered obsolete 40 years later. The same is true today.

I am as nauseated and frightened by the current state of our economy and politics as any progressive, but because progressives tend to defend a wing of the status quo they lack both hope and vision for a world free of racism, war and exploitation that socialists advocate.

There are whiffs of a shift from an acceptance of the current state of affairs in the Chicago teachers strike, the Wal-Mart and fast food workers’ stirrings and on a global level, Canada’s Maple Spring and the Indian rising against rape.

But to really break from capitalism’s ideology that tries to trap us in accepting and even defending our own immiseration, a knowledge of history and active participation in challenging the present seem fundamental.

Viewed this way, hope is not derived from froufrou idealism, it comes from a realistic assessment of human potential.

Sherry Wolf is a writer, public speaker and hopemonger. She’s available to speak on issues ranging from the new Middle East, sexuality and socialism and US politics today.  

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