YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 25, 2009

Preventive Politics and socially responsible capitalists, 1930s-40s

Talcott Parsons still hot

The following excerpt from my book on the Melville Revival logically follows on the heels of the recent blog on negative images of “the People” and should be read together. It contains some of the most damning material that I found in my research, for “preventive medicine” and “preventive politics” are hellishly and unscientifically intertwined, and have been funded by the most liberal foundations and other sources of support.

[From Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 9:] The pursuit of Melville in elite eastern universities during the late 1930s was coterminous with the excising of “radical” will through antifascist liberal surgery. As world war loomed, Marxists and many others from Center to Left were predicting fascism in America. New Deal policies, they argued, could not avert or repair the periodic structural crises of capitalism; only a corporate state could suppress the class warfare that would flare anew in the depression that was expected to follow demobilization. Irrationalist moderate conservatives viewed moralistic self-righteousness (on the Left) and selfishness (on the Right) as the source of social violence.

In 1939 or 1940, three moderate men, Robert Hutchins, Paul Hoffman, and William Benton, invited University of Chicago faculty and “personal friends” from big business to join a study group, The American Policy Commission. Hutchins was President of the University of Chicago and defender of Great Books; he and his former partner Chester Bowles would be members of America First; Hoffman was President of Studebaker, later chief administrator for the Marshall Plan and first president of the Ford Foundation; Benton was Vice-President of the University of Chicago, promoter of modern radio advertising, Amos ‘n Andy, and Muzak, later publisher of Encyclopedia Britannica and other educational media, Assistant Secretary of State, then originator of “The Voice of America,” U.S. Senator from Connecticut, and backer of UNESCO enabling legislation. The American Policy Commission evolved into The Committee For Economic Development, institutionalized in 1942; its purpose to meet the anticipated postwar depression with Keynesian economics. The CED distinguished its “socially responsible” policies from those of the laissez-faire National Association of Manufacturers; it brought scholarly specialists together with liberal businessmen to steer America clear of the mad extremes of Fascism and Communism, later McCarthyism, inflated arms budgets, and commercial broadcasting.

The omnipresent political scientist Harold Lasswell was central to their project of preventive politics: the Jung-inspired Lasswell discovered the psychopathology of communism and fascism. Benton’s biographer unambiguously placed Lasswell’s probe in the democratic tradition:

“[Lasswell] looked hard and long at these worldwide disorders of the political mind, hoping to find in them the terms for a program of preventive medicine and that could help maintain America as a free society with equal opportunity for human dignity open to all.”

With the examples of Plato and other classicists at hand, Lasswell and other psychopathologists could protect the old master narrative. Nazis sighted on the horizon (like the jingoistic followers of Father Coughlin and other American fascists) must be the People: sneaky, bloody, perverse, selfish and paranoid. Without good father navigation the hysterical People would be driven by shadows in Plato’s Cave, go berserk and drown “business.” Lasswell was worried about the possible transition from fascism to communism; while attempting to overcome Marxian socialism, (rational) European businessmen had been captured by the “romantic Fascists” of the squeezed “lower middle-class” who might go on to liquidate their former patrons.

Interestingly, for Lasswell in 1936, the scenario in America seemed different. Here the middle class was so identified with “big business” and “big finance” that it was likely to fall for the propaganda against “reds” and smash labor. To avoid “piecemeal fascism” and to enhance “peaceful development,” Lasswell (and other ego psychologists) prescribed class-consciousness (but integration) through pluralist bargaining in “interest groups” to achieve emotional and intellectual independence from monopolistic big business. In 1941, Lasswell urged vigilant sighting and sympathetic treatment of bad seeds:

[Lasswell:] “Public opinion is profoundly distorted when there are deference crises in society; and these appear when the level of deference is suddenly interfered with, and when destructive personalities exercise a directive effect upon public opinion. Some persons are at odds with themselves, carrying heavy loads of anxiety, and from these anxiety types extremism may be expected. We need to become aware of which social practices in the home, school, factory, office–contribute to anxiety and which to security. We may be able to lower the level of the explosive reserves when human development is subject to gross distortion.”

Lasswell could have been describing Herman Melville’s anxious disillusion with paternal authority; perhaps explosions would be obviated by enhanced civilian morale with methods advocated by Harvard social psychologists Murray and Allport, also disseminated in 1941. By 1942, these social scientists were certain: the Head Self was sturdy guardian of “the public interest,” whereas overly egalitarian motions inside the Western Body levelled walls, erected barricades, then tossed up lonesome corpses. In his article “Propaganda and Social Control,” Talcott Parsons, Murray’s Harvard associate and mentor, addressed mental health practitioners, proposing that the government practice “social psychotherapy” to stabilize the national consensus. He advocated subliminal “reinforcement type” propaganda to calm the “revolutionary” and “disruptive” types that were inducing structural change or undermining “confidence in authority and leadership.”

For Parsons, maladjusted neurotics were fomenting conflict and fragmentation, not adaptation and interdependence. But froward rebels could be cured in the socially responsible psychiatrist’s office through “steady discipline to which the patient is subjected in the course of his treatment. While the fact that he is required and allowed to express himself freely may provide some immediate satisfactions, he is not really allowed to ‘get away’ with their implications for the permanent patterning of his life and social relations, but is made, on progressively deeper levels, conscious of the fact that he cannot ‘get away’ with them. The physician places him in a kind of ‘experimental situation’ where this is demonstrated over and over again (561).”

Compare the Parsons protocol with the sermon of a German theologian in 1933 switching “secular Jews,” the most dangerous type of atheist:
“Everywhere where something can disintegrate decomposed, can be destroyed, maybe marriage and family, patriotism or the Christian church, discipline and order, chastity and decency; everywhere there is something to gain, he is involved there. He is mocking with his ingenious joking, with his smart and skillful talent, with his persistent subversive energy. An atheist always acts destructively; but nowhere is the destructive force of this attitude as devastating as in the case of a Jewish person who wasted his rich heritage from the Old Testament and joined the swine.”

Pragmatic Harvard social psychologists had appropriated Madisonian pluralist politics, ignoring the libertarian, anti-corporatist aspect of their theoretical underpinnings. For the new moderates, social stability was achieved when triumphalist factions (instigated by religious enthusiasm or other forms of zealotry such as an inordinate love of gain), were replaced by amoral interest groups; relieved of (Hume’s) plundering or leveling extremists, bargains could be struck, reconciling private interest with public good: the moderates would have clambered onto solidly “mobile-middle ground.” Reading Madison in Federalist #10, they could infer that free speech was a safety valve, circumscribed spatially and irrelevant to political processes with realistic goals. Having banished irrationality from their own procedures, the Harvard clique could see themselves as resolutely antifascist, for it was the mob-driven Nazi movement (likened by Parsons to romantic puritans in other writing of 1942) that was pathological.

Ritual rebellions could be safely confined within psychiatrists’ offices or the pages of Typee (or in the bed Ishmael shared with Queequeg). Parsons’ contribution appeared in Psychiatry along with a germinal article “Hitler’s Imagery and German Youth,” by Erik Homburger Erikson, another colleague of Murray’s at Harvard. Erikson presented Hitler as a “great adventurer” possessed of “borderline traits”; he was the perennial adolescent, a big brother to other unyielding gangsters. Erikson held that broken-spirited German fathers lacking inner integration and authority were responsible for the (hysterical) romantic revolt of the sons. Erikson’s identity politics owed more to Murray and the romantic conservative Jung, a theorist of racial character, than to the cosmopolitan and bourgeois Freud. Soon the Jungian analyst Murray (who admired the Wandering Jew Freud’s eyes that penetrated walled-up areas of the psyche) would be advising President Roosevelt that Hitler, the autodidact Id-man, the Dionysiac Man of the Crowd who had overcome big Capital, was an “arch-Romantic,” a composite of Lord Byron and Al Capone, a paranoid schizophrenic, a homosexual, and probably a carrier of Jewish blood through his father; ergo Hitler’s “uncanny knowledge of the average man”should “be appropriated to good advantage.” Disillusion with the Führer was perilous; Murray argued for “a profound conversion of Germany’s attitude” after the Allied victory:

[Murray:] “Disorganization and confusion will be general, creating breeding ground for cults of extreme individualism. A considerable part of the population will be weighted down with a heavy sense of guilt, which should lead to a revival of religion. The soil will be laid [sic] for a spiritual regeneration; and perhaps the Germans, not we, will inherit the future.”

Lasswell and Murray, both progressives, thought as one. In his Power and Personality (1948), Lasswell contemplated the continuing plausibility of Marxist analysis, worried about “paranoids” with their fingers on nuclear buttons, and urged “genuine democrats to expose the dubious and dangerous expectation of democracy through mass revolution.” The world revolution of the twentieth century would probably culminate in mutually annihilating technocratic garrison states unless “the scientists of democracy” intervened to create the “sociocapitalist” “free man’s commonwealth.” Murray’s personality tests (developed in the mid-1930s and during his stint with the OSS during the war) fertilized Lasswell’s febrile, holistic imagination. While deploying the concepts of accountability and openness that for Locke had been indispensable to the functioning of popular sovereignty, Lasswell, with Murray’s personnel assessment tests in tow, had turned Locke upside down:

[Lasswell:] “One of the practical means by which tensions arising from provocativeness can be reduced is by the selection of leaders from among non-destructive, genuinely democratic characters…. This has already gone far in appointive jobs. Several businesses are accustomed to promote executives not only on the basis of the general administrative record but according to scientific methods of personality appraisal. The aim is to discern whether factors in the personality structure counterindicate the placing of heavier responsibilities on the person.
” To a limited extent selection procedures in army, navy and civil administration have been directed to the same end. But the procedure is not yet applied to elective office. What is needed is a National Personnel Assessment Board set up by citizens of unimpeachable integrity which will select and supervise the work of competent experts in the description of democratic and antidemocratic personality. The Assessment Board can maintain continuing inquiry into the most useful tests and provide direct services of certifications of testers. When this institution has been developed it will slowly gather prestige and acceptance. Sooner or later candidates for elective office will have enough sense of responsibility to submit voluntarily to an investigation by the board, which would say only that the candidate has, or has not, met certain defined minimum standards. Gradually, the practice of basic personality disclosure can spread throughout all spheres of life, including not only local, state, national or inter-nation government personnel, but political parties, trade unions, trade associations, churches and other volunteer associations.
[Lasswell, cont.]”It is an axiom of democratic polity that rational opinion depends upon access to pertinent facts and interpretations. Surely no facts are more pertinent than those pertaining to character structure of candidates for leadership. Progressive democratization calls for the development of such new institutions as the Assessment Board for the purpose of modernizing our methods of self-government.” [end Lasswell quote]

The National Personnel Assessment Board set up by citizens of unimpeachable integrity,” “gradually” penetrating every institution, would control definitions of acceptable rational opinion. And yet Lasswell was no friend to totalitarian regimes; as member of the Research Advisory Board and spokesman for CED, he condemned loyalty investigations. Instead of imitating sleazy witch-hunters on the Right or the “negative” tactics of the ACLU on the Left, he called for an overhaul of leaders and the led (the latter ultimately responsible for protecting First Amendment freedoms). A balance would be struck between national security and individual freedom through formation of community discussion groups, to be fed by appropriately cautious government experts supplying an interactive (but “expert”-controlled) free press and public broadcasting system. In the 1950s, Lasswell’s study of political symbols helped social scientists refine their tools in the surveillance of blooming political dissidents. Murray’s OSS recruitment test of 1943 could weed potentially disloyal government employees, while his Thematic Apperception Test (1935) could enhance content-analysis of mass communications. Lasswell frankly explained the purposes that infused the new discipline of communications studies, said to be relevant to literary scholars and historians; indeed he decoded authoritarian styles of discourse throughout.

Modern preventive politics did not begin with the machinations of Lasswell & Co. but with Humean or Burkean autopsies of the regicidal English and French Revolutions. According to the reform-or-ruin school of preventive hygiene, foul winds and cancers appear when aristocrats allow vices to ferment in the bowels; the social bond is broken, virtue and vice trade places. Through alert planning (like education and sports for the masses and psychoanalysis for their betters), elites would become more flexible while containing their passion for libertine excess and luxurious display; meanwhile the People would have healthy outlets for their discontent and desirousness–like libertine excess and luxurious display especially in the mass media.

Thus Reason, Conscience, and the State would be brought into congruence. The reform-or-ruin strategy of social hygiene and preventive politics would dominate the political science and social psychology created by moderate conservatives. Understrapping their dreams of thoroughgoing surveillance, the watchbird watched everybody, leaders and the led. [end excerpt from and Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, footnotes not included]



  1. […] Turn now to the Trump election. Is it or is it not a “revolution”? I queried my Facebook friends, and few agreed with me that we were in some kind of great transformation. To be sure, private property has not been attacked as was done in the earliest stages of the Bolshevik seizure of power. But was the New Deal a revolution or not? https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s…. […]

    Pingback by Are we in a revolution? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 6, 2017 @ 8:04 pm | Reply

  2. Incredible history that I estimate can be found nowhere else. I have been wondering if contradiction in purpose and policy (as developing a fascist regime with the purpose of avoiding fascism) is an intentional design of leadership or an accident. After reading this history and reflecting on recent experience (seeing that certain influential progressives I know are outright racists while honestly lambasting ‘western imperialist racism’), it’s beginning to seem possible that contradiction in conscious purpose and promoted policy is actually somehow a fundamental natural principle of Western government, or perhaps of government or ruling leadership in general. After all, isn’t that the essence of the required operating principle of the left, to assert leadership ‘for’ others and leadership ‘over’ others at the same time, as if the two are complimentary rather than contradictory? Even the masterminds orchestrating ‘over’ such types would have to abide by the belief in the same operating principle. Perhaps in that case, as in the Federalist papers, the assertion to lead ‘for’ others ( the ‘people’) and the design to lead ‘over others’ (pitting ambition against ambition) the difference is that the policy is intended for political subjects which are not one and the same. Whereas in this case, the operating principle of the policy was (or is?) to establish a single ‘unified’ character.

    Comment by Mark Leavenworth — July 9, 2014 @ 7:34 pm | Reply

    • I prefer to formulate it more simply: the FDR allies were all about social cohesion and what they regarded as conservative reform to prevent a revolution or race riots. The search for truth was irrelevant and probably dangerous. The “character” they wanted was a uniform “national character” that would look up to them as the natural leaders.

      Comment by clarelspark — July 9, 2014 @ 7:47 pm | Reply

  3. […] blog should be read along with another book excerpt, https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/ for equally determined elite initiatives to improve "social cohesion" at the expense of critical […]

    Pingback by Left-liberal social psychologists and “civilian morale” at Harvard | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 9, 2014 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

  4. […] a prior blog, “Preventive Politics and Socially Responsible Capitalists, 1930s-1940s,” (READ IT:https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/.) the social psychologists, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists centered at Harvard […]

    Pingback by Preventive Medicine and Preventive Politics | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 3, 2014 @ 3:22 pm | Reply

  5. […] a prior blog, “Preventive Politics and Socially Responsible Capitalists, 1930s-1940s,” (READ IT:https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/.) the social psychologists, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists centered at Harvard […]

    Pingback by Preventive Medicine and Preventive Politics | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 3, 2014 @ 3:22 pm | Reply

  6. […] and academe, for Gay had adapted to the progressive movement’s halt to the Enlightenment (see https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/, especially the sentences in bold face, quoting Talcott Parsons in the early 1940s). There would be […]

    Pingback by Peter Gay’s “Freud” | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 23, 2013 @ 9:45 pm | Reply

  7. […] with such social psychologists as Henry A. Murray, Harold Lasswell, and Talcott Parsons. (See blog https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/.) It should also be noted that German intellectuals fought bitterly over whether or not the Nazi […]

    Pingback by Review: In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 14, 2011 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

  8. […] https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/. The Fort Hood massacre/jihad has motivated me to read in the annals of military psychiatry. What […]

    Pingback by Strategic Regression in “the greatest generation” « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 11, 2009 @ 7:28 pm | Reply

  9. […] behaviorist model. (For the powerful Talcott Parsons cohort at Harvard and elsewhere see my blog https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/.) I was taken especially by the inception of military psychiatry in Russia diagnosing […]

    Pingback by Is the History of Psychiatry a Big Mess? (2) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — November 9, 2009 @ 3:35 am | Reply

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