by Mitchel Cohen

When 20-year-old Marja announced that she was joining the Red Balloon Col­lec­tive at SUNY Stony Brook in the mid-1970s, her Long Island sub­urban mother went bal­lis­tic: “This is the freest country in the world. If they don’t like it here, why don’t they go back to Russia?”

Marja’s mom forbade her to get involved with the Red Balloon Collective. She phoned the FBI in Smithtown, Long Island, who told her, “They think they’re Communists, but they’re relatively harmless.”

Harmless? Harumph!

Marja made it clear she was “one of the com­mun­ards.” Her mother squawked: “What’s the point? You can’t fight City Hall. And don’t sign any lists! The FBI might get hold of it and then you’ll never get a job.”

“Look,” I told her, “You can’t have it both ways. It’s either a free country or a repressive one. In a free country the government can’t black­list you for your beliefs, fire you from your job or throw you in jail.” But Marja’s mother wouldn’t budge. She couldn’t — or wouldn’t — allow her­self to see the contradiction.

This interchange with Marja’s mom is em­blem­atic of something I’ve observed over and over again, partic­ularly in the United States: A person is some­how able to hold two dia­metrically opposite posi­tions at the same time and be emotionally in­vested in both of them.

This phenomenon runs counter to the linear car­toon model of the way people think — a construct as much in vogue among leftists who believe their primary task is to “raise” others’ consciousness as it is among behav­ioral psych­ol­ogists and rightwing fundamentalist Christians.

How is it possible for a person to hold con­tra­dictory views? The answer is, “With dif­fi­cul­ty,” and also, “It happens all the time.”

Like most people straining to hammer the oddly shaped circumstances of everyday life into patterns that are familiar and comforting, Marja’s mom lived per­petu­ally in a state of dual con­sciousness. Her demo­cratic impulse to live life meaningfully and have an impact on the forces affecting her life contrasts sharply with the in­ter­nalization of her objective powerlessness to change things. Both frameworks co-exist in the same time and mental space. As with most people, Marja’s mom tried to have it both ways. “Thanks for siccing the FBI on your own daughter,” I scolded. She didn’t say a word.

* * *

I gave a talk about the social psychological implications of what I am calling “dual con­scious­ness” at a conference in New York City in 1991. With my 2-year-old daughter Malika on my knee, I recited prov­erbs and clichés most of us here in the U.S. grew up with. We explored the conflicting advice given in such maxims as: “Look before you leap” but “He who hesitates is lost”; and “Haste makes waste” but “A stitch in time saves nine.” How do children perceive such contra­dic­tory directives?

I recited “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her, put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well” and asked the partici­pants in the workshop to examine how that image impacted their sense of self and views about women. How did their early childhood influences affect the way they look at and experi­ence the world? Malika, meanwhile, skidded off my knee and wobbled down the hall. I darted out of the classroom and caught up with the little speed-demon who was already forty feet away investigating the doorknobs of who knows what with an impish gleam in her eye.

I first observed that sense of wonder in her when, at 9 months old in Patch­ogue and still not quite able to stand on her own, she’d pull herself up out of the communal futon and edge her way to the low window holding onto the sill for half an hour and, with wide, curious eyes watch the sun come up. I’d pretend to sleep but all the while I’d watch her watch­ing trees lighting up, buildings, grass, fences, cars, color leaking out of the gray, tumult from silence, chaos from the familiarity of darkness. How long, I wondered, will it take TV to instill fear, destroy her curiosity?

Upon returning to the workshop, we ref­lec­ted on a few more nursery rhymes. Malika man­aged to sing along with me, to the great amuse­ment of the work­shop participants. Most were not aware of the political origins of the ditties we all sang as children, nor that these songs were the form political com­mentaries took once-upon-a-time on topical issues. They voiced the hopes of the disempowered and satiri­zed the ruling class.

And so each generation hears anew the story of the corrupt bourgeois “Little Jack Horner,” who again and again sits in the corner and sticks his thumb into the pudding pie (the public trough) and pulls out his reward. King George again and again sits in his Rockabye Baby “cradle” in the treetops (his throne) as the winds of revolution in the colonies bring down the Monarchy’s control, cradle and all. In “Ring-Around-a-Rosie,” Lon­don is again hit with bubonic plague — the Black Death, “ashes, ashes, all fall down” — that deva­stated western Europe and China in the 14th cen­tury. These are the songs we sing to our children today, mini-editorials sung in taverns hundreds of years ago through which dissidents kept historical memory alive within work­ing class communities.

One of my favorite Nursery Rhymes when I was a kid was Humpty Dumpty. I recited this verse to Malika repeatedly during her first year. Sometimes we’d stomp around the apartment re­citing “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall / Hump­ty Dumpty had a great fall / All the King’s horses and all the King’s men / Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.” We’d recite it faster and faster un­til our legs couldn’t keep up with the beat and we’d fall down on the floor laughing hysterically. So who would have known that before he was turned into a very smart Post-Modern egg (whose view was that one could make words mean whatever one wished) by Lewis Carroll in his Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, “Humpty Dumpty” was the name of a giant cannon(!) that sat a­top the wall around the town of Colchester in the em­ploy of the roy­alty and brought down by the democ­ratizing bourgeois forces of the parliamentarians? The rhyme tells the story of the fall of the royalty in 1648.

Similarly with Jack and Jill — King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; Jack fell down and lost his crown (Louis was beheaded), soon to be followed by Marie, the author of perhaps the most notorious and sarcastic anti-working class quotation in history: “Let them eat cake.” And so it goes.

Today, we are more disconnected from our own histories than ever! We view the effective political com­men­taries of yore as “Nursery Rhymes” with no con­nection to their original purpose. And yet we still sing them to our chil­dren, passing along a common set of references that serves to unite the generations and helps to shape each American’s national and cultural identity, before we hand over our kids’ minds to TV commercials to finish the job. Later, we add rituals like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every day in public schools for more than a dec­ade, which play a similar role.

Life can be, and to children it often is, a never-ending source of wonder, mystery and life-affirming ad­ven­ture; it always surprises. Unfor­tun­ately, when we get older, we often experience those surprises – indeed, any­thing out of place — as insecurity, and consequently our lives through frequent pulses of disorientation. This disorienta­tion is not a matter of mistaken ideas that can be corrected by learning a few new facts about ourselves and the world, but of dizzyness, ver­tigo, panic — phys­i­cal manifestations of neurosis. Nor is disorienta­tion a once-in-a-while event. We suffer pangs of in­security — “My keys! Oh, my God, where did I leave them?” — doz­ens of times each day, but we’re not aware of them and don’t remember them. They’re like dirty little secrets that have gotten covered over (“repressed”) via the psych­ological mechanisms with which we’ve been incul­ca­ted, knitted into our muscles as per­fectly as Madame DeFarge’s knitwork contained the names of those to be beheaded. The dis­orientations are twisted into our bodies’ energy meridians, and pearled into ten­sions and neuro­tic behavior. All this we take for “normal.”*

The extent of disorienting flutters can be shock­ing. Try walking around for a day or two with a notebook and mini-microphone recording every momentary pang, rapid shifts in mood, jolts in emotion/hormonal pulse, anxieties and infinitesimal panicky flashes as they occur. This is preposterously difficult to do, as one must focus intensely on one’s own moment-by-moment sur­ges and ebbs of loneli­ness, panic, moods, flashes of violence and despair that last for a split second and then are washed over by feelings of love, connection, com­munity, purpose, creativity. Concentrate on becoming aware of the fluctu­a­tions and micro-pulsations that we normally and unconsciously subsume within larger moments. I found that, added up, I’d spend literally hours each day out of control of my own life on the simplest emotional level. Others who have done this experi­ment report that they gained similar insights about their own being in this world.

All of this propels a new look at what Leftist strategy seeks to accomplish. And doing so can lead to different conclusions than the one we as Leftists are accustomed.

How do we understand our own reactions, the ones we take for “normal”? We don’t. We are not con­scious of any of this, except in rare cir­cumstances. It happens automatically, so much so that it all seems perfectly “natural.” “This is the way it’s always been, it’s human nature, and it’s the way people are everywhere.” Well, no it’s not, but the standard oper­ating assumption is power­ful, whether we’re thinking about it or not. And so capitalism, which conditions the way we ex­perience the world and then rep­ro­duces itself through us — through the way it’s made us — comes to seem natural, ubiquitous, omni­potent and eternal. It makes us want to bang our heads against a wall, hires us to build that wall, and then sells us time slots which we willingly purchase in which to do the banging. “You can’t fight Human Nature” be­comes capitalism’s self-serving rationaliza­tion, the emotional equivalent of “You can’t fight City Hall.” We are all part of The Matrix. No one is immune.

One would think that the reality of being dis­empowered would break through into conscious­ness and uproot the composite ideolo­gical, emo­tional, psych­o­logical and political paradigms that un­beknownst to us dominate our lives and especially the ways we are con­di­tioned to experience them. Most leftist organizers assume that by rationally appealing to this conscious­ness of social ills they will succeed in rallying people to change their conditions. Organizers assume that if people only knew the facts — an injustice of one sort or another — that knowl­edge would generate emotional upheaval and a de­sire to set things right. In fact, how­ever, under every­day conditions hearing about some societal ill — especially about one’s own oppression, power­less­ness, and alienation — rarely causes the target of one’s lecture to spring into action and throw off the oppressors. Most often, we instead become anxious. And the social role of mass-Anxiety is to block rational thought from seeking to target the op­pressors and take action — except under certain conditions, which we will investigate shortly.

We are driven by everything around us under patriarchy and capitalism to use psych­olo­gical and sometimes physical mechanisms that prevent self-awareness from translating into radical action. In fact, we often remain unconscious of our own lack of control, just as much as Marja’s mother remained unaware of her own mutually negating beliefs — “We live in the freest country in the world” and “You’ll get in trouble if you raise these issues or challenge the system”. She was unable to put two-and-two-together even when I point­ed out the contradiction. At which point she did not say “Aha! Let me figure out how to resolve this dilemma,” but instead trembled with rage, glowering at me, the over­turner of suburban applecarts.

Social psychologists call these “moments of cog­nitive dissonance.” Instead of acting to resolve the con­tra­diction when brought to one’s attention we, like Marja’s mom, become anxious, and that Anxiety gen­erally blocks us from seeking to resolve the unresolv­able. The Truth will most often not set you free.

“Neurosis,” then, is fundamentally a social con­struct; it is the way we experience the friction that occurs when contradictory frameworks with which we’ve been ingrained and through which we experience the world rub up against each other, and we are powerless to unify or resolve them. Psychologically, all things that disorient us run, in this culture, through the same sequence of mediations. Dissonance begets disorien­tation; dis­orien­ta­tion begets insecurity; insecurity begets fear and anxiety; and fears and anxiety beget neu­ro­sis. This sequence of mediations reproduces the system’s dominion within our subjec­tiv­ity. Under capitalism, neurosis is an everyday state of affairs. Even though they eat away at us and cause all sorts of psy­cho­lo­gi­cal abnormalities, neuroses are part of an uncon­scious framework for surviving the disson­ance and anxieties gen­erated by being dis­empowered. This is true for experiences we had in childhood, disori­ent­ing events as adults, and for irreconcilable frame­works for seeing and being in the world that would otherwise cause one’s head to ex­plode. The whole sequence flashes in the blink of an eye. It is essential to maintaining our incom­petence at resisting the ongoing penetra­tion of capitalism into our psyches.

An understanding of how this works has major consequences for a radical social-psychol­ogy, and for how we, as leftists, perceive our own mission and strat­egize around it — that is, for What Leftists Must Do. 


*In Fear & the Art of Neurosis Maintenance I join Wilhelm Reich in arguing that memory is not just “of the mind.” One’s body stores memories, too; but it does this differently than mind’s rational consciousness.


  • ONE: The Capitalist Infesto: What is the Existential Vacuum … & Does It Come with Attachments?

  • TWO: Those Not Busy Being Born are Busy Dying (with introduction: “Who Started Pollution” by Barbara Garson)

  • THREE: Help, I’m Voting and I Can’t Get Up! (with essay: “The Nomination of Stuart R.” by Barbara Garson)

  • FOUR: What Is Direct Action? New Left Lessons in Reframing Revolutionary Strategy (Now a 596-pg book!)

  • FIVE: Tips for Anti-Apartheid and Other Activists

  • SIX: What is to be Undone?, or How to Spot a Vanguardist at Twenty Yards

  • SEVEN: The Shortcomings of Traditional Leftist Strategy

  • EIGHT: A Head Full of Ideas that are Driving Me Insane

  • NINE: Out In Front of a Dozen Dead Oceans: The Theoretical Advances of the New Left

  • TEN: Reframing the Dominant Paradigm: Big Science & the Left’s Curious Notion of Progress

  • ELEVEN: Deep Marxism: Towards a Nature Theory of Value

  • TWELVE: The Capitalist System vs. the Immune System

  • THIRTEEN: Fear and the Art of Neurosis Maintenance

  • FOURTEEN: The Whole World Is Watching … Television!

  • FIFTEEN: The Social Construction of Neurosis and Fears

  • SIXTEEN: Chaos & Anarchy — Application of New Sciences to Radical Consciousness [available in August 2016]

  • SEVENTEEN: Notes on the Ecological Dimension: Marxists and the Environment: Is Marx’s Critique of Science and Technology Radical Enough?





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