Ruthless critique of power by a cognitive scientist. Review of his insightful book that offers a unique digression into human history to understand (and change) today’s conditions

The German cognitive researcher Rainer Mausfeld has long been concerned with neoliberal ideology, the transformation of democracy by elites and the psychological techniques of opinion management that they use to secure their ruling position. He has expanded his thoughts on these topics in books such as “Why are the Lambs Silent” and “Fear and Power”, courageous works that criticize power and get to the heart of the authoritarian spirit of the present day. His most recent publication is in the same vein.

Book cover of the German edition of “Hubris and Nemesis”

In “Hubris and Nemesis: How the de-civilization of power leads us into the abyss – insights from 5000 years” (published in German, not yet in English), Mausfeld varies his basic theses, but places them in a much broader context. Along historical lines, he shows how the concept of democracy has been robbed of its original meaning and now serves as an instrument of power.

To substantiate his thesis, Mausfeld goes back 5,000 years in the history of civilization. Even at that time, people recognized what has become the fundamental problem of liberal democracies today: power and wealth strive to increase unchecked. Robust containment is therefore required. For this reason, a protective instrument was developed quite early on – the egalitarian guiding principle of democracy. Mausfeld writes that “to this day, it is associated with the hope of drawing a line under the parasitic desire to have more, which has threatened social cohesion since the beginning of the history of civilization, and preventing the emergence of parasitic elites”. This dialectical process of elite formation and control is traced using examples from Mesopotamia, ancient China, and ancient Athens, whereby Mausfeld also emphasizes the structural shortcomings of the solutions.

The elites have always been able to find loopholes and exploit the conditions for themselves, even when new forms of social organization have emerged: “These opened up more effective ways of exploitation for the respective power elites and new possibilities for a more stable organization of their power. Compared to these new organizational forms of exploitation and power, the previously acquired instruments of upward mobility and elite control proved to be largely ineffective.”

In this context, the cognitive researcher illustrates that rulers in earlier civilizations still had to resort to the world of the supernatural in order to achieve a strong identification of the subjects with the ruler. Later, with capitalism and the “de-theologization of rule”, other ideological means were developed to achieve an equally effective identification.

These psychological manipulation techniques have always been one of the now retired professor’s most important fields of research and have shaped his books. Mausfeld knows that power elites are increasingly relying on findings from sociology and psychology to steer the opinion of their “subjects” in a certain direction. In “Hubris and Nemesis”, Mausfeld illustrates how certain functional principles of the human mind can be exploited for such manipulation purposes using a number of examples, including an illustration in which visually identical objects appear extremely different through appropriate contextualization. According to the author, it is even easier to manipulate moral sensitivities: “For this purpose, very elementary linguistic means are sufficient to contextualize one and the same fact in such a way that it appears morally good at one time and morally reprehensible or evil at another.”

According to Mausfeld, such techniques constitute what he calls “ideological power” in reference to the sociologist Michael Mann. This term comes to the fore when the author takes a comparative cultural-anthropological look at the earliest forms of social organization and explains how the means of limiting power were increasingly misused as instruments of power stabilization in the course of the history of civilization. According to Mausfeld, ideological power arises “when a group succeeds in influencing and controlling the meaningful categories of thought, interpretative contexts and framework narratives with which people form a mental image of their social reality”. Later, traditional norms and values simply had to be reinterpreted in the respective ideological context in such a way that the rulers were given a monopoly on securing and enforcing them and the ruled regarded this as legitimate.

The concept of democracy has been reinterpreted in the same way. According to Mausfeld, democracy originally served as an emancipatory instrument to protect the cohesion of a society and to secure natural individual liberties. It “was developed as a civilizational instrument of protection against parasitic elites and aimed at a consistent containment of power by the social basis”. However, the power and property elites recognized early on that the word “democracy” could be used as a highly effective instrument for stabilizing and expanding power: “If it is embedded in a suitable ideological framework that conceals the fact that the term has been emptied and robbed of its original meaning, this word can be used to calm the natural need for freedom and self-determination.”

The most effective forms of this ideological power were produced by capitalism. The previously developed civilizational instruments of protection were largely fruitless against it. Mausfeld explains this with the contradictions inherent in the term “liberal or capitalist democracy”. Its core problem is precisely that it is based on promises of equality that cannot be fulfilled by its economic system and property relations alone: “In this sense, capitalism and democracy are fundamentally incompatible.” Mausfeld’s analysis is largely based on the preliminary work of the US political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, to whom he dedicates an entire chapter in order to embed his concept of “inverted totalitarianism” in his own body of thought.

He also takes a critical look at the concept of formally free elections. In the age of the economization of all areas, these merely maintain the illusion of democratic participation, but are basically completely irrelevant politically because those exercising power already control the psychological processes of opinion formation. Those who have the financial means to develop and organize such campaigns can influence others in their judgements and decisions and thus impose their will on them.

These connections are presented in an enormously abstract language. “Hubris and Nemesis” is not an easy book to read, but one that is inspiring due to its considerable level of reflection. It is based on both theoretical and empirical findings, which Mausfeld distils not only from the crises of recent times, but also from the works of numerous intellectual greats. He quotes Ingeborg Maus and Wolfgang Reinhard, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith, Machiavelli and Hannah Arendt, but also poets of antiquity. It is also the source of inspiration for the title of the almost 500-page book.

Mausfeld alludes to Greek mythology and draws parallels to the present day. “An infinitely long time ago, in times long past,” begins his prologue, “people lived in harmony and contentment. Discord, isolation or even a desire to have more at the expense of others were alien to them. But when a few began to gain advantages at the expense of the community, history took its course.” Aidos and Nemesis, the divine embodiments of shame and righteous anger, were the last deities to remain with the corrupt human race. “When they too leave humanity,” Mausfeld continues, “only the right of the strongest will remain, and human desires for power and wealth will finally destroy human history.”

It is precisely Nemesis that Mausfeld contrasts with the hubris of the self-overestimating power elite. What she embodies is more urgent today than ever. The shameless exploitation of power and the disregard for law and morality must be punished and limited so that society does not decay. So what needs to be done? “The most urgent task,” Mausfeld formulates his appeal in the epilogue, “is therefore to work step by step in all areas of social life to create an atmosphere conducive to such a fundamental social transformation.” However, this can only succeed if the insight prevails that all power structures must prove their right to exist and justify themselves to the public.

In view of the desolate conditions today, Mausfeld sees an urgent need for action. “We don’t have much time left,” he warns. “Either, in view of the civilizational abyss into which the de-civilization of power threatens to lead us, we begin to resolutely search for cave exits from the ideological vault and erect suitable democratic protective beams against unleashed power. Or we resign ourselves to the status quo of given power relations, continue to remain silent as before and leave it to future generations to reflect on the reasons for our inaction and the reasons for our silence.”