Political apathy as a symptom

Written by Miltos Karakostas (Translated by Michael Theodosiadis)
The article in Greek here

Political apathy is a phenomenon that preoccupied (and still preoccupies) many intellectuals and social scientists. It is a pathological symptom of a society that loses its creativity and sets the foundations of its decay. If we attempt to give a definition of political apathy, we would say that it is the condition where human beings cease to function as active political animals, they cease to consider themselves able to take responsibility for making decisions that determine their lives, finally cease to become exponents of a different social institution, ignoring any sense of autonomy [1]. Instead they adopt a passive stance characterized by mass behaviour, conformity, introversion and excessive individualism or as Cornelius Castoriadis (2001) says, they prefer privatization to freedom.

The phenomenon of political apathy cannot explained solely according to economic and political terms but has mainly psychological basis. As seen from the very root of the word, “apathy” is derived from the privative a- and the noun πάθος-pathos (passion). The word pathos, from the verb πάσχω-pascho (suffer), acquires a negative meaning in philosophy, indicating the emotional attachment to an object, inasmuch as the command of reasoning is lost (and this naturally leads to mental weakness and dependency). Positivist philosophies and religious metaphysics consider passions as defects that we must eliminate in order to be in charge of ourselves. On the contrary, in poetry, literature and art passion is connected with boundless enthusiasm, perseverance for the achievement of high goals, a mental disposition that leads to the transgression of the self.

Paschein (suffering) has a tragic substance and causes awe to the audience and respect for the hero who sacrifices and is sacrificed in order to reach his/her goal. It is not a selfish goal, as it has a social and worldly dimension. Therefore, new forms emerge from the dialectic of passion; while it destroys the old, it creates new values and gives new meaning to the world. The realm, however, where passion positively emphasizes its creativity is the realm of politics, politics as the creation of new institutions and not as self-interest, geopolitical control, management of wealth resources or economic administration. Passion in politics, when it expresses destructiveness is associated with the overthrow of an incumbent status. It cancels the existing structure of a society and challenges the dominant power, it is in agreement with the project of freedom and lays the foundation of revolutionary consciousness.

The term αστυνόμους οργάς – astynomous orgas (instituting passions), as expressed by the ancient Athenians – denotes this enthusiastic momentum for the institution of the laws of the city, or more simply the passionate participation of citizens in public affairs. Nonetheless, the collective “political passion” has been expressed only in few moments in history. We see it in the Athenian polis of the 5th century, in the beginnings of the French revolution, in the workers’ uprisings of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871, in the great strike of 1905 in Petersburg, Russia, in the 1917 Soviets of anti-tzarist Russia (before the Bolshevik take-over), in the Spanish Civil War of 1936, in May 1968 and of course its seeds exist in many autonomous and anti-authoritarian movements today.

Political representation as a form of subordination

The question that emerges is why the passion for political and social life remains the exception rather than the rule? Why do people constantly withdraw in the private realm, allowing public matters to be managed by representatives, “experts” and technocrats? What makes people not fight for emancipation when their most fundamental and vital interests are threatened? Even worse they applaud and consent to authoritarian rules imposed on them. What motivates Wilhelm Reich (1983, p.53) to write that “what has to be explained is not the fact that the man who is hungry steals or the fact that the man who is exploited strikes, but why the majority or those who are hungry don’t steal and why the majority of those who are hungry don’t strike”? This leads to the following conclusion: the main issue is not to give the citizen consciousness of social responsibility – this is understood. The question is what inhibits the realization of such responsibility. What drives millions of people to consider insane leaders as the only ones able to solve their problems and overcome the socio-economic crisis?

The French thinker Etienne de la Boetie (1530-1563), one of the first that dealt with this issue, in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1548) is unable to understand this phenomenon. He vividly and derisively describes how people allow themselves to be governed by kings and princes despite their inner desire to reject such subordination. He also mentions that human beings, choosing to live in authoritarian structures, are neither men – as freedom is the natural state of the species – nor animals, because even animals when their freedom is limited or when they are in captivity resist so strongly to the point of self-harm.

Therefore, the lack of passion for politics or otherwise the perversion of passion with its negative meaning as the inability to control ourselves and as an unconscious desire that must be satisfied at all costs, is dominant in all capitalist authoritarian societies. It is fed by them and easily becomes attached in most of its institutions, expressed through excessive consumerism, religion (here in particular we see an irrational passion so intense and widespread that surpasses all forms of creative imagination), adherence to political parties, lifestyle and commercial sports (soccer, etc). It would not be unreasonable to say that the whole economy and its institution is based on this kind of negative passions. The whole process of production with its alienating impact is consumed directly by the absurd gratification of these pseudo-needs. It seems that the passion of economism kills the passion for freedom. It is not difficult, therefore, to understand that these passions are cultivated by the society that they inevitably create and the corresponding structures, hierarchy, relationships of competition and authority, for the sake of which people are forced to sacrifice any sense of political empowerment and autonomy. At the same time, the current institutionalized power by exploiting this situation cultivates through education, family, religion and the media, the individual super-ego, that is the unconscious representations (which are tautological with coercion) and is overwhelmingly identified with the capitalist imaginary significations, aiming to reproduce them at any stage.

Marxists never paid attention to the sociology of apathy. They never recognized this phenomenon, although there existed conditions that allowed them to recognize how apathy, to some extent, is the result of the alienation that derives from productive relations. Marxists were more concerned with the dominance of the vanguard of the Party rather than with the thoughts and feelings of the masses which would lead them more quickly to the revolution. They saw the revolution as a social practice that would deterministically arrive some day. On the other hand, Cornelius Castoriadis – such as Hannah Arendt (1998, p.10) – although he rejects the idea that human nature is something that could be easily defined and described in the sense of an unchanged substance, in his mature works believed that humans are basically idle, that by their natural tendencies incline to passiveness and indifference. Obviously the great thinker of autonomy had come to this conclusion during the late 80s after seeing the Occidental world becoming entirely swamped by consumerism and spectacle instead of pursuing social struggles that would not only improve wages and working conditions but, above all, will enhance and expand participation in the remodelling of society, which at this very moment is exclusively performed by a group of ultra-selfish rulers.

Consequently, the question of political apathy remains open. It should, nonetheless, concern all those who desire to seriously become engaged with the issue of collective and individual emancipation, with the notion of social revolution which should cease to be viewed as a predestined gleam of hope but an institutional process, as a fact of daily life that occurs with boundless energy, creativity, imagination and of course passion for life and freedom.

[1] For the Greek-French thinker Cornelius Castoriadis, autonomy calls for rejection of every a-priori thinking and continuous questioning of institutions through the use of logos and imagination. Autonomy has a two-fold meaning: it stands for autos, “oneself” and nomos, “the law” (Castoriadis 2007, p.94). An autonomous person “is someone who gives herself her own laws,” in contrast with the state of heteronomy where norms, values and principles are acknowledged as a totally rigid system often guaranteed “by the instituted representation of an extrasocial source, foundation, and guarantee of law. The significance of the project of autonomy in the re-institution based on norms and values that will contribute to economic equality is of crucial significance. Without self-institution or conscious action – “we make the laws, we know it” (Castoriadis 1997, p.18) – the functioning of a society is not determined by its members.

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De La Boétie, E., 2013 (first published in 1548). Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. [e-book]. Available through: The University of Adelaide
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