YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 2, 2011

The Watchbird State

I object to the term “nanny state” as sexist. Here is an argument for “Watchbird State” as alternative, taken from chapter 9 of my book Hunting Captain Ahab. The powerful social psychologists I cite here viewed themselves as “moderate conservatives”. Today, they occupy the “left,” having purified the republic of the dangerous extremists who once perched on our shoulders.  The watchbird was an invention of Munro Leaf, and during the 1950s, was a familiar cartoon figure.  (For a related blog, preparing the reader for this one, see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/.)

[book excerpt:]    Pragmatic Harvard social psychologists appropriated Madisonian pluralist politics, ignoring the libertarian, anti-corporative* 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.”[i]

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.[ii] 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 Talcott 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.[iii] Erikson’s identity politics owed more to Henry A. 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:

“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.[iv]

Harold 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 John Locke had been indispensable to the functioning of popular sovereignty, Lasswell, with Murray’s personnel assessment tests in tow, had turned Locke upside down:

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.

“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.[v]

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 the Committee For Economic Development (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. [vi] 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. [vii]

Watchbird sights bad boy

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.[viii] 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.

*Corporative does not signify a state in cahoots with big business and Wall Street (as New Leftists and OWS folk would have it), but rather organizing representation by occupation, such as Mussolini’s “corporative state” where the state regulated relations between the sindicati, imposing harmony from above and erasing the conception of the dissenting individual.


[i]               21. Richard Chase, “New vs. Ordealist,” Kenyon Review, 11 (1949): 12-13, cited again below.

[ii]               22. See discussion of Madison and the Whigs, Daniel Walker Howe, Political Culture of the American Whigs, 90-91. As I interpret the Federalist Papers, the authors (Jay, Hamilton, and Madison) defined their republicanism against all feudal and corporatist entities– the sources of imbecility, war and anarchy. Liberty was a quality of the rational individual. Collectivities were fictions necessarily sustained by myth, not political science. Their interest groups corresponded to economic interest alone; there was no talk of national “identity.” The idea of using (irrationalist) propaganda to obtain consensus would or should have been anathema. Madison’s Federalist #10 does not discuss free speech directly. Addressing men of property alarmed by Shays Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, and demands for several separate confederacies, the acutely class-conscious essay distinguished the benefits of a balanced republic controlling a large territory as compared with the vulnerabilities of small states and the confiscating propensities of small-scale popular democracies. The more interest groups the better, since no one group, unified by economic interest, could attain a legislative majority to oppress other citizens. Madison’s view of human nature does not include moral categories as such: individuals differ in their capacities to acquire property. Men of property, properly chosen (elected) to represent their constituencies for their inner  poise and sense of justice, would be fair to contending parties, abiding by the rule of law–rules that were the same for rich and poor alike. These may be the moderate men interrogated by Melville’s dark characters.

 [iii]             22. Erik Homburger Erikson, “Hitler’s Imagery and German Youth,” Psychiatry 5 (Nov. 1942): 475-493. On 30 Nov. 1952,  Murray sent Erikson a copy of his paper on Ahab, In Nomine Diaboli. On 4 Mar. 1952, Murray asked for a copy of Erikson’s paper “Growth and Crises of the Personality.” On 30 Nov. 1962, Talcott Parsons invited Erikson to present a study of Max Weber in the style of his Luther psychobiography for the 1964 meeting of the American Sociological Association, noting Weber’s “great creative contributions to our culture.” Erikson Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[iv]              23. The register of the Murray Papers at Harvard state that his analysis of Hitler’s psyche was in process since 1938: it is possible that Murray influenced Erikson, not vice versa. See Henry A. Murray, “Analysis of the personality of Adolph [sic] Hitler with predictions of his future behavior and suggestions for dealing with him now and after Germany’s surrender,” October 1943, 5-7, 31, 46-53, 83, 143, 145, 211 and passim. Declassified confidential report, FDR Library, Hyde Park, quoted with permission. Cf. Anton T. Boisen, “The Form and Content of Schizophrenic Thinking,” Psychiatry 5 (Nov. 1942): 23-33 (the same issue contained the Parsons article on propaganda). Primitives, children, romantic explorers, materialists, individualists, modern artists, and persons undergoing “conversion” experiences are conflated and diagnosed as anxious, fragmenting (“hebephrenic”) schizophrenics. Also see Charles Kligerman’s diagnosis of Melville’s paranoid schizophrenia in “The Psychology of Herman Melville,” Psychoanalytic Review 40 (Apr. 1953): 125-143.

[v]               24. Harold D. Lasswell, Power and Personality (New York: Norton, 1948), 222, 211, 186-187.

[vi]              25. Harold D. Lasswell, National Security and Individual Freedom (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950). Howard B. Myers of CED wrote the brief forward which explained that “This report examines the problems that confront us in seeking national security without forfeit of the basic values and principles of American life.”

[vii]             26. Harold D. Lasswell, Daniel Lerner, Ithiel de Sola Pool, The Comparative Study of Symbols, 24-25. Murray may have gotten the term “apperception” from Goethe’s comments on the rigid moralist Dr. Stilling (aka Jung), an example of a God-intoxicated type, overly impressed by “experience,” that Goethe described in his Auto-biography: “The things sympathetic persons of this kind love most to talk of, are, the so-called awakenings and conversions, to which we will not deny a certain psychological value. They are properly what we call in scientific and poet matters, an “aperçu;” the perception of a great maxim, which is always a genius-like operation of the mind; we arrive at it by pure intuition, that is, by reflection, neither by learning or tradition. In the cases before us it is the perception of the moral power, which anchors in faith, and thus feels itself in proud security in the midst of the waves.” (Truth and Poetry, Vol. II, 75).

[viii]             27. See Richard A. Soloway, “Reform or Ruin: English Moral Thought During The First French Republic,” Review of Politics (Jan. 1963): 110-127.


  1. […] followed by https://clarespark.com/2011/01/02/the-watchbird-state/. These are excerpts from my book on the Melville Revival and are unknown or off limits to most […]

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  2. […] What is wrong with the Foucault/poststructuralist picture? Their synopticon makes no distinction between sectors of the bourgeoisie, for instance between classical liberals and social democrats who do favor “the watchbird state,” and whose suspicious movements have been traced throughout this website, for instance here: https://clarespark.com/2011/01/02/the-watchbird-state/. […]

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  3. […] term “nanny state” as absurd and sexist, proposing instead the term “watchbird state” (see https://clarespark.com/2011/01/02/the-watchbird-state/). No one has been more critical of illegitimate state power than I have been.  However, it is also […]

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  4. […] From the beginning of KPFA, Pacifica radio was always a creature of the social cohesion policies of left-liberals. It was never a radical (Marxist) radio station as is now widely believed. Sadly, it has now deteriorated to a network that is not only heavily in debt, but a home to conspiracy theorists.  I told the story of my own experience there on this website, but it seems timely still. Pictured are Paul G.  Hoffman and his close friend and ally Robert M. Hutchins. Their role in the adoption of Keynesian economics in American big business along with discreet mind-management is told elsewhere on this website. (For starters, see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/ in tandem with https://clarespark.com/2011/01/02/the-watchbird-state/.) […]

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