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The Gigantic Chasm Between Democratic Rhetoric and Capitalist Reality

by Rainer Mausfeld
Democracy promises the greatest possible freedom from social fear and social determination. Democracy means renouncing on one of the most effective rule techniques: the systematic production of social fear. When those exercising power systematically generate fears, they block social judgment and paralyze readiness for decisions and actions.

Interview with Rainer Mausfeld

[This interview published in July 2019 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Fear, power, democracy and rule are four central terms for Rainer Mausfeld as a critical observer of our society. The emeritus professor of psychology explains how fear is a means of exercising power in our political system and how a very destructive ideology – the social “entrepreneurial self” – dominates our thinking.

Mr. Mausfeld, in your work, you combine the terms “fear,” “power” and “political rule.” What does this say about our democratic system?

Democracy promises the greatest possible freedom from social fear and social determination. Democracy means renouncing on one of the most effective rule techniques: the systematic production of social fear. When those exercising power systematically generate fears, they block social judgment and paralyze readiness for decisions and actions. The basis of democracy is undermined through the systematic production of fears. Democracy and rule techniques of fear production are incompatible.

What is fear from a psychological view?

Fear is a very fundamental emotional state in the spectrum of our emotions. It is a threat or shock to our whole being. It affects psychic experience and the body. Since fear is experienced as very unpleasant, it triggers defensive bodily and psychic activity. Fear is described as neurotic fear or internal fear in psychology. It dominates the person, so to speak, consumes his psychic energies and makes persons apathetic and depressed.

The renowned political scientist Franz Neumann warned those exercising power try to change real fear into internal fear to paralyze social resistance.

What is power?

Striving for power is one of the basic human cravings or desires. In a social community, power has many advantages because it means someone can enforce his interests against others and others surrender their wills. Unfortunately, the human desire for power is boundless and not self-limiting – unlike other creatures. This creates huge problems that can only be solved through civilized safeguards. These safeguards are part of the guiding idea of democracy.

The concept of power is fundamental for sciences occupied with the political-social realm – just as the concept of energy is fundamental for physics. Thus, power is the central concept of political science. Erecting blockades against the insatiable greed for power and against excesses of power is a civilization challenge that we must meet.

We live in a democracy. As everybody knows, the “people” have all the power.

Both are signs that reality must be confronted very carefully. That all power derives from the people is only a rhetorical formula that gives people the illusion of social self-determination. The guiding idea of democracy is socializing power and bridling power socially in a certain way. Thus, democracy means that every form of social power needs a democratic legitimation. All power structures have to prove their right to exist and justify themselves to the general public. Otherwise, they are illegitimate and should be removed.

Are Fear and Power More Complex?

The chasm between democratic rhetoric and capitalist reality is gigantic. Since its beginning, establishing a capitalist democracy has depended on concealing the contradictions between capitalism and democracy by manipulating public opinion. Thus, establishing a capitalist democracy and the systematic development of methods for controlling public opinion went hand in hand historically. The triumphant advance of democracy in the 20th century was only possible through developing techniques for manipulating public consciousness.

The actual centers of power screen themselves almost completely against democratic control, answerability obligations toward the neoliberal revolution from above and the so-called globalization that is really a form of neocolonialism of the economically strongest nation. More effective indoctrination techniques are needed to hide the chasm between rhetoric and reality.


Since the beginning of the 20th century, manipulation techniques were systematically developed at enormous expense and led to the explosive growth of the social sciences and psychology. Since then, the techniques of democracy management have been redeveloped and refined which the general public hardly understands. A comparison with the development of the entertainment industry may be helpful. The possibilities of the entertainment industry increased tremendously in the last hundred years. In the same time period, the techniques for manipulating public consciousness developed comparably although its developments were less obvious and comprehensible and therefore are hardly present in public consciousness. The tremendous advances of these techniques cannot mask the illusion that we live in a society largely free from propaganda and indoctrination. Developing nearly invisible techniques of democracy management is certainly one of the most spectacular successes.

Does the fear factor come into play in exercising rule?

Traditional forms of democracy management focused on the aspect of opinion management. Those exercising power in capitalist democracies recognize the production of fear as one of the most effective rule techniques. Social fear can be generated with simple methods and has a more powerful effect on public consciousness than a mere opinion manipulation. The more strongly authoritarian tendencies appear in the foreground in capitalist democracies, the techniques of systematic production of fear become more important than the traditional techniques of opinion management.

What do you mean by “Opinion- and Democracy Management”?

This involves all the techniques that influence social attitudes and opinions so the majority of the population votes in a certain way. The arsenal was systemically tested and refined over many decades and in most cases is hardly recognizable as manipulation and propaganda. This arsenal forms the basis for the leading media. How this functions in particular can be studied in the daily newspapers and the television. In any case, there is no lack of illuminating seminar material for developing quality journalists at journalism schools.

Can you sketch fear production in an example?

How does fear become a rule technique?

Social fears can be generated in different ways like a legal and property system in which the survival of the non-propertied depends on successfully selling their labor power to the propertied. Thus, the pressure to paid labor represents an essential structural factor in producing social fear. Structural forms of fear generation are very effective because there are no visible actors here any more.

The systematic use of fear rhetoric is a more direct way of producing social fear. As a rule, this happens through a struggle against evil ordered from above, against a declared threatening enemy and therefore to be fought resolutely. This something can be everything used to produce fear. Prominent examples today are the war against Fake News and against Russian disinformation. Reality writes the best satires.

The declared war against terror is the most momentous example. This war veils imperial interests and a gigantic redistribution of public money in the war- and security industry, dismantling democratic achievements gained through historical struggle and the establishment of a security and surveillance state. In this struggle, fears are fomented hypocritically by a war ordered from above. Terror can be fought best when those ordering this war against terror exempt themselves.

The deceitful character of this ordered war against alleged threats shows these wars cannot succeed because their success for the economic and political centers is to be unsuccessful so the threats are maintained as a reason for producing fear.

On Democracy

The systematic production of fear is a central rule technique in capitalist democracies. Democracy is a social form that democratically hedges every form of power and guarantees the greatest possible freedom from social fear…

In capitalist democracies, central areas of society are exempt from democratic control. In particular, democracy means every citizen shares in all decisions affecting his or her own social life. However, this basic democratic condition can not be realized when core areas of a society, especially the economy, are organized in an authoritarian way and not subject to any democratic control or social accounting. This explains how the concept of a capitalist democracy is a contradiction since democracy and industrial and industrial- and finance capitalism are incompatible for fundamental reasons. This stands out in the neoliberal form of finance and corporate capitalism since all areas of society are subject to globally deregulated economic power structures in an authoritarian way.

You have reflected deeply on neoliberalism and conclude that this ideology “systematically” produces fear in our society. What do you mean?

Historically, neoliberal ideology has many roots. These strands have a common anti-democratic stance. This radical anti-democratic attitude is most explicit in Friedrich Hayek. Since neoliberalism is a redistribution project from bottom to top behind the ideology of the “free market,” it is not surprising it cannot gain a democratic legitimation through elections. Its rule can only be ensured by dismantling democratic safeguards and the institutional and legal addition of authoritarian elements. Since the chasm between social reality and democratic rhetoric is so great that it can not remain hidden from ever larger parts of the population that traditional techniques of opinion manipulation cannot maintain the illusion of a democracy. Therefore, the systematic production of fear has a very central significance as a means of stabilizing rule in neoliberalism as an extreme form of capitalism.

At the same time, those social authorities were systematically weakened or destroyed in the neoliberal reorganization of society that reduced fear by creating solidarity community. The neoliberal project could not have prevailed without a systematic production of fear.

What are some examples?

The prototypical example of neoliberal fear generation is precarious paid labor pursued systematically and deliberately in the course of neoliberal transformation processes.

Systematic and deliberate

Precariousness is a form of social disintegration. Social disintegration was and is a central rule technique. Uncertain and unstable employment conditions diminish or destroy the capacity of collective action and the organizational power of employees by promoting social atomization. These effects are intended because they massively shift power relations in favor of owners of capital. Thus, privatization is a rule technique and a disciplining instrument and not simply a regrettable side-effect of neoliberal transformation processes,

Fear production through a material endangering of the existential foundations of life is certainly the most effective form of a rule technique. The uncertainties of life-planning and the threat of permanent social descent exclude larger and larger parts of the population from political-social participation and lead to the desired emptying of the political space. These fears are also used to steer the energies of social change to diversionary goals. Thus, precarious paid labor already creates material living conditions that are fear-producing. This form of fear-production is intensified in ideological ways.

How can fears produced by uncertain working conditions be ideologically reinforced?

Neoliberal ideology contains two core components that massively promote social fears. The first component was formulated very clearly by Friedrich Hayek and can be described as neoliberal epistemology. Ultimately the question is whether there is a basis of understanding social interactions on whose foundation we could organize society. Hayek was convinced the complexities of a society take away the possibilities of a human rationality. With that, all attempts at steering social development are condemned to fail. The market is the only mechanism that integrates information and forms social relations in a comprehensive and rational way. Removing obstacles to the free operation of the market is the only way to reliable control. According to Hayek, creative social intervention guided by community spirit and solidarity is based on irrationalities and therefore endanger the rational effect of the “free” market.

Does Hayek think the person cannot form the world in which he lives?

Yes, this idea represents a kind of market theology that denies the human capacity for understanding social processes and their formation. This belief in the market means the effective powers determining our social life elude us. The possibilities of our social life planning and a social assurance of dignified living conditions can only be defined by the natural law rules of the market to which we must submit. This ideology that denies the intelligibility and formability of our social life triggers feelings of dependence and powerlessness in us, our individual and collective anxiety feelings.

You described two components of neoliberal ideology that encourage fears. Why is a second component necessary when the market theology can provoke anxiety feelings for rule goals? How do you see this second component?

The ideology of the unintelligibility and the non-formability of social processes cause fears, resignation and political apathy. However,

The neoliberal project has the goal of subjecting all the realms of a society to the economic criteria of competition and profit, those realms that previously were protected from the capitalist exploitation logic. Schools, the whole training system, the public health system and public goods are included. Neoliberalism now derives the expansion of capitalist exploitation logic to its extreme limit by subjecting the individual to the capitalist exploitation logic. It seeks to create a new person, so to speak, who adjusts in an ideal way to the natural laws of the free market.

What is a neoliberal person?

The ideal neoliberal person is described as a “neoliberal self” or an “entrepreneurial self.”

What do you mean?

Social relations are mainly competitive relations in the ideology of the “entrepreneurial self.” Everyone is a kind of “I-company” and “human capital” and must submit to criterion of profit-maximization as an entrepreneur of himself. This requires necessary adjustments through tireless efforts to be successful on the market. Whoever fails to optimize his foreign exploitability for the market must blame himself for his failure. Whoever is successful in salary and social status has earned this success because he made a successful market adjustment. Whoever is not successful and is among the social losers has rightly failed. Only the free market can embody justice, Hayek said. Ideas of human justice only represent irrationalities and consequently should only be regarded as potential market disturbances.

In a massive way, this ideology produces fear of performance failure. Performance for success limits one’s vocational planability through the ideology of the rational unintelligibility of market effects. Only the one who reorganizes himself into a “flexible personality” and reinterprets foreign pressures into personal pressures can be successful under competitive conditions.

The ideology of the entrepreneurial self is an effective and perfidious trick for shifting social antagonisms inwardly and making self-exploitation appear paradoxically as the highest form of freedom. Such an emptying transformation of the self to a “flexible self” must inevitably cause serious psychic injuries as shown in the intense growth of anxiety disturbances and grave depressions.

That the prevailing ideology is so deeply engrained in our thinking so thinking “outside the box” is hardly possible seems to be a great problem.

Neoliberal ideology is much more than an economic conception. As an economic idea, it is based on absurdities and is full of incoherencies in that it must reinvent itself after every crisis that it provokes. A breath-taking flexibility appears so the current practices of concrete neoliberalism have little in common with the original ideas. What remains constant through all these transformations of neoliberalism is its totalitarian claim to a competitive organization of all areas of social life. The creation of an entrepreneurial self that only finds a social identity as consumers in a socially atomized society is part of that totalitarian claim.

This ideology of the entrepreneurial self has become a base cultural ideology of our society. It makes itself inviolable like all base ideologies. We hardly notice it as an ideology; it has become a matter of course to us. All our social thinking is defined by this ideology, our ideas of childhood and education, family and relations, psychic disturbances and therapy and even our notions about our own person. The school and the whole training realm are marked by this ideology. It has left its deep traces on the entire sphere of culture.

How can this ideology in our thinking be corrected?

Independent thinking is obviously the most important weapon for intellectual self-defense. This can also help show and make people aware of the social causes of fear production so counter-strategies may be possible. At the same time, this problem may not be abridged in an individualist way. A social self-defense goes beyond individual efforts and can only succeed in solidarity. A socially produced fear can only be overcome through communal acts and cannot be mastered only with one’s thinking. Overcoming the individualization of systematic ally produced fears desired by neoliberalism is vital for finding ways to a solidarian master of fear.

When someone merely works on an individualized form of happiness and social utopia is privatized in this way, the neoliberal ideology can perfect its work: the destruction of community and the idea of community. When we lose the idea of community and solidarity, we lose our capacity for collective action. With that, the dream of the possessing class could be realized, namely the boundless power of the economically stronger. The destructions of social and ecological substance occurring in the last decades show this dream of the owners is our universal nightmare.

(Translator Marc Batko’s note. Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall has more than 404 million views. “When you lose your way, you reap the fruit you sowed.”)
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