by EW Wilder
I can't help but think that the real problem with contemporary conservatism is that it traps people between external motivation and the expectation of an internal locus of control.
This produces the ultimate mindfuck, a powerful manipulative tool that projects tyranny far beyond the actual abilities of the oppressor to harm the oppressed.
It operates on the assumption that the reason for doing something (work, kindness, being “accountable”) is outside the person (the expectations of a vengeful God/country/king/marketplace/CEO), but the responsibility for doing something is entirely inside the person. This would explain why conservatives can believe both in authoritarian hierarchies and also believe in personal responsibility. Consider that conservatives support command and control structures that rely on punishment rather than reward, deterrent rather than cooperation, submission rather than empowerment. But they also support “self-starters,” entrepreneurship, and “freedom” broadly speaking. These things would seem to be incompatible unless the external motivation/internal locus of control theory is applied.
In the conservative paradigm (which governs almost all of our corporate, educational, and executive political systems), people are trapped into believing that if they did not achieve the proper outcome it is always their fault for not being responsible enough, even though they were “just following orders,” “just doing their jobs,” or, in the case of the latest economic downturn, “doing everything right” by investing in the market. The fact that their failure was highly likely, if not inevitable, given their circumstances and resources, is exactly why those in power tend to be conservative and operate by this set of assumptions, regardless of what they officially say. This is why Barack Obama can run as a liberal but, when he gets into office, “punish” his foreign enemies with drone strikes when they get out of line; this is how he can espouse a drill-and-test educational system and a regime of massive internal surveillance. All of these are based on the premise that motivations are external while all responsibility is internal. Consider the arguments: the Syrian government must be motivated to do what we want by the threat of force. Children and teachers alike must be motivated by the threat of the exam, upon which rides both their academic and their professional futures. At the same time, we say things like “Assad brought this on himself,” and “children must live up to standards of excellence.”
Thus trapped in untenable positions, people have little choice but to internalize the master narrative and feel that they can and should act only in ways prescribed by whatever authority they see as most operative in their lives. These authorities become the external arbiters of their behavior and help define their orientations to authority until something else has sufficient force to supplant it. Thus a “wild” teenager finds what he believes is “discipline” in the army. What he finds, of course, is fear, and he does not know what to do with himself without its threat. This is at least partially why so many returning vets have no idea how to re-integrate into civilian life: they have not identified with the new externalities, and there are no real means in our culture to nurture (much less make a living from) what motivates us internally.
This form of social control is subtle, brilliant, and ultimately disabling, leading us to seek control in other, usually self-destructive, ways, such as self-medication, controlling relationships, cutting, mind-numbing entertainments. If we engage in these too much, we find ourselves enmeshed in the officially and formally authoritarian systems of control: prisons, coercive “welfare” schemes, psychiatric “care.”
Despite the rhetoric, then, or perhaps as an indicator of its true intent, people acting out of intrinsic motivations are an existential threat to conservatives and to the systems of control and command that they embody, maintain, and seek to perpetuate, This is why the “geek” must be ridiculed or, when useful, corporatized and monetized, indentured into his “proper place as an engineer or an apparatchik. This is why the artist must be marginalized, the humanities department defunded, and “blue sky” research turned vassal to technological R&D. This is why mere refinement is redefined as innovation and innovation is relegated to the garage, the coffeehouse, the alternative communities of open-source software and “maker” spaces.
This is what Kafka got right: the motivations of the artists, the innovators, those who will help our civilization survive when our climate changes or the meteor falls, are internal, as basic as hunger, as clear as sweat.