Our Tyrants: The Self-Enslavement of Modern Civilization



THE prison door opens, light streams in, and a harsh voice says: “You are free. You can go!”

“Free?” exclaims the prisoner. “What do you mean, free? Where am I to go?”

“You are released, the door is open, and you can go where you like.”

A wave of happiness floods through the prisoner’s frame, but it is mingled with bewilderment. He has forgotten what it means to be able to make up his mind for himself. Even freedom has to be learned. He hesitates.

“Get out of here,” his liberator says impatiently. “See that you disappear as quickly as possible.”

The prisoner stands in the open air, blinking in the bright light and looking around helplessly at a world that seems threatening and demands decisions from him. Cheer up, poor man, your old tyrants have gone and can torment you no longer. But newer ones have been provided. You have only to go out into the world to see for yourself. You will soon meet people who will tell you. Those who believed that with the fall of the bloodstained tyrants a day was dawning in which man would be able to act in accordance with his own laws did not know that even the most damnable institution can never be t otally uprooted. The stones of demolished prisons are built into the dwellings of the new generation, and their evil life lives on. Even bondage can become a habit, to which our weaker selves secretly look back with regret.

It is a wonderful thing no longer to have to live in the world of camps and patient holding of your eating utensils. It is a deliverance that everyone should be able to speak his mind and be able to protest against injustice. But the old habit of falling in in ranks and carefully keeping one’s mouth shut goes echoing on inside us. There are no more booted tyrants to be frightened of. They have gone, the devil has taken them. But the devil himself remains, for he is no loyal helper; he rejoices that we can never again be completely free, because the technique of oppression has become a part of progress.

It has been demonstrated that the overcoming of the problems of the modern age is inconsistent with an unrestricted measure of freedom. He who wishes to bring order into the world dare not place unlimited reliance on reason and good will. It is impossible to do without compulsion — not the compulsion that lies behind the law in the freest society, but the compulsion that does not trust the individual’s goodness. Even the Western world has become deeply pessimistic, and in the long run that is inconsistent with the democratic organization of society. It is possible that man may be good, but we had better not put it to the test.

Totalitarianism so thoroughly eliminated the frontier between public and private life that it has not yet been possible to re-erect it. Authority once set. itself up as an idol which tolerated no personal area, no retreat, into which the ruled could creep. But now it is the ruled, because they have no knowledge of their rights and at bottom have ceased to be very inquisitive about them, who show no inclination to re-enter the area that has become free. The old yoke was evil and deadly, and was felt to be so, but of the new yoke nobody is really aware. The state picked up and is now busying itself with what we dropped from our weakened hands. Where man retreats, the state steps in.

Now the state is by no means the same as the government; we should not be living in the Federal Republic if we did not know that. It is possible 1o have an efficient administration which is not the state. But who would deny that the administration shows an uncanny tendency to play the state and to treat the individual with severity? What should be an instrument tends readily to regard itself as the embodiment of a principle, and as soon as this occurs it starts striving for power and encroaching on our priviite sphere. In Germany the administration has always tended to let itself be identified with the state and to profit from the idolization of the state to which we so readily tend. Since 1914 so many new tasks in the economic and social field have accrued to the state that it has been forced to change its essential nature to be able to perform them. Thus it has become second nature for it to want to think and act for the individual. The day before yesterday it was the necessities of war, yesterday it was the harsh demands of economic and social planning, today it is the turn of “civilization” and the “formation of public opinion,”and tomorrow our private life will again be the object of official solicitude and effort.

Though the shock given us by Nazism may provide us with no sufficient philosophical just ideation for regarding the state as an absolute evil or as a permanent danger to the individual, a certain mistrust of it is still appropriate. Whatever form authority may assume — and in our country at the present time its aspect is thoroughly genial — the economic, social, military, and propaganda tasks which devolve upon it throughout the world actually compel it to transform its influence into power. The state acts continually under an impulse which brings it into ever closer contact with the individual and positively forces it to encroach upon the private field. Whatever the impulse may be, even if it be a belief in liberty, in the hands of the ruling authorities it is bound always to assume the form of power.

True, authority is a human creation, but creator and created have broken irretrievably apart, and at best the relations between them have assumed the form of conflict. For the time being the conflict is confined to the material burdens imposed on us from above. Who is there who wishes to defend what is the center of his life? Who is even conscious that it is threatened? Bit by bit we are abandoning what used to constitute the sovereignty of Western man. The private sphere, which was once surrounded by a certain sanctity, is dwindling. Man evacuates one field after another, and the state cannot be expected not to move into the empty space which we are unable to fill.


DEMOCRACY does not protect man from the juggernaut of power when he is too apathetic to exercise democracy. Without bloodshed and without glory, bureaucracy mounts the throne and presses its subjects hard. Controlled economies, concealed military dictatorships, and scarcely concealed military dictatorships are the levers by which the free personality is lifted off its hinges. Where I fail, the state is at hand, for it is clear that no area of human activity can be left to chance. Values for which past generations fell in battle evaporate in the routine of the cold war. If I do not know what to do with my spare time, I call in the state. If I am incapable of looking after the produce of my field, or educating my children, the authorities are immediately at hand to act in the public interest.

Thus our tyrants are involuntary tyrants of our own creation. Our subjection to mass rule is not in the least inconsistent with this. For the masses are a tyrannical fiction. The human beings of whom the masses allegedly consist play only a small part in them. Never was there a more hypocritical instrument for the disarmament and diminution of the free personality than this concept of the “masses.” The word originates from the romantic vocabulary of the class struggle, and has long since lost its old meaning. That makes it all the more serviceable in the modern struggle of competing interests. It is a terrible weapon in the hands of the groups and entities which today contend for the reality of power. These struggles, of which we poor devils are impotent spectators, whether they be the new struggles for power of parties or points of view, or of associations representing special interests, trade unions, employers, or professions, are not only conducted between states and continents, but cut across nations. Invariably they are imperfectly concealed by the dilapidated curtain of parliamenlarianism.

The more selfishly and inhumanly this struggle for power is conducted, the more necessary it is to keep referring to the masses, for whose interests each group claims to stand. Hand in hand with this goes an artful wooing of the masses, from which nowadays no country in the world is exempt. Whether sympathy for the masses is prompted by a genuine interest in the lot of mankind or whether it is only an excuse, obeisance to the masses must be made. The securing of justice for the masses, which should be a worthy object of public concern, turns into a form of idolatry, the cult of a tyrant who has completely forgotten that he is dealing with living human beings. It is a form of demagoguery without which nowadays no one dares make a public utterance.

Mass needs are called into being out of which much money is earned and power acquired. But in reality, perhaps, these needs have no real existence. The precipitous driving down of the level of taste, the unrestricted competition in offering more and more banal illusions and more and more stupid entertainments with less and less intellectual content, take place as an apparent service to the “broad masses,” about whose impulses the boldest theories are put forward. The more prominently mass needs are pushed into the foreground, the harder it becomes to discern the struggles for power of the contending groups.

Demagoguery and propaganda have become tyrants of whose insatiability we did not dream when the devil fetched the men with the boots. Since then the world has become more moral, because it is at any rate aware of morality again, but it is still perceptibly in bondage. Perhaps this can never completely disappear so long as the two halves of the divided world maintain their fearful lighting trim. For, since world politics have been sharply separated into black and white to the exclusion of all intervening shades, any action, any utterance, commits one to a position which must not be a disloyal position.

Thus a new form of tyranny has been created which lies like frost over the multiplicity of life and extinguishes its colors, and, on top of the political loyalty which men naturally grant it as members of the Free World, imposes a general, total adherence to the correct line. Every aspect of life is thus subjected to the compulsion of a political choice. An American who rejected Soviet imperialism but praised Russian methods of plant cultivation could be suspected of “un-American activities.” A Soviet citizen who opposed the Atlantic Pact but praised American dentistry would — if such an event is thinkable — attract the attention of the police.

This is the state of mind of the Wars of Religion, which led the faith to victory but was deadening to the soul. So we hear Montaigne sighing in desperation: “May we not say of a thief that he has a handsome leg?” No, old Montaigne, you may not, because if you do your tyrants will say that you are on the thieves’ side. In a trice even the best of men can find himself committed to something he does not want. If he is wrong, propaganda is there to show him the light; and finally there are the police to put him on the right track. Whatever our future may be, whether it be an Arcadian dream of a smooth-working, parliamentary democracy or a nightmare of totalitarian darkness, the future belongs to the police state.


IT WILL certainly be a police state whose functionaries will have the phrase “rights of t ho masses” continually on their lips. The gentle Rousseau, anticipating the terrorist rule of the single-party state, spoke of “the good people”; today the latter have turned into the “masses.” It is no longer possible to say aloud that the rights of the masses do not exist, that the term “masses” does not stand for anything real, and that not the slightest sanctity should be attributed to it. A man who proclaimed such a thing today would exceed in temerity all those who once contested the legitimacy principle; he would actually send a deeper shudder through his audience than any atheist who ever denied the existence of God in the open market place. The fashion with which the whole modern world prostrates itself before the concept of the masses has hardly any counterpart in the history of mankind, because in the past the powers before which men bent the knee had a reality which was a matter of everyday experience, while the rise of the idea of the masses goes hand in hand with peoples’ delivery gagged and bound to needs invented for them.

We think we have broken the oppressive influence of economic power, proclaimed the dignity of labor, the sanctity of leisure, and the “majesty” of the consumer. In reality, however, mankind, in so far as it takes part in civilization, is floundering in the net of a tyranny of the market, before which the powers of the state itself are beginning to bend the knee. He who has anything to put over – whether it be a commodity , or a habit leading to the consumption of commodities, or a fashion or trend calculated to create a demand — appeals to the principle of man’s right to unrestricted access to all that civilization has to offer. It is a matter of indifference whether what is offered is a commodity or an idea, because in any event we shall be offered whatever will lead to an increase in the consumption of goods.

The romantic times in which one could hold individuals or groups responsible for these compulsions have gone. Never again will the critically minded have such easy targets at their disposal as in the period of opposition to good old capitalism, the representatives of which earned money by convincing people of their need for refrigerators. Those wore the days! Then the sharpshooting critic of society at least knew on whom to set his sights. But the tyranny of the market of the present day and the wicked cunning of the old-fashioned capitalist are in different categories. Man is now digging his own grave; the evil is the individual’s participation in what he takes to be civilization. All ideas of progress and improvement in living center around buying the things which are dreamt about by those who believe themselves to be on the ladder of progress.

What ranks as the civilization to which everyone has a right is the possession of certain objects and gadgets, access to certain forms of stimulus and entertainment, use of all the goods, commodities, and amenities characteristic of modern life. Tremendous industries and elaborate organizations exist to satisfy needs that they have themselves created needs for materials, pictures, scents, new luxuries, drugs, and games; in short, all the things which are recommended to the individual as desirable on the ground that the masses want them. In relation to these needs no man is free, unless he feels capable of living the life of an outcast.

Our rump Germany is just as much involved in this servitude as all other countries. Indeed, the responsibility of our leading intellectual circles for this state of affairs is particularly great, because they have demonstrated no power of resistance to the myth of the masses. On the contrary, they cooperated with positively suicidal zeal in the lie about civilization based on alleged mass needs, and assiduously branded as heresy any attempt to protect the individual against the oppression of artificial cultural needs.

Thus the century-old struggle to liberate man so that he might enjoy an unrestricted share in the fruits of civilization has led to a new Condition of servitude, and imposed on him a new kind of tyrant which he is unable to recognize as such. It is impossible for him to discern the trap into which he has fallen by reason of the continuous expansion of the possibilities of pleasure. It is even more difficult to preach him sermons about moderating his consumer drive, because only a saint would be capable of setting voluntary limits to the consumer in himself.

Man’s liberty is indivisible, and therefore no one can prevent him from becoming a slave of civilization. His liberty to spoil the existence of himself and others by noise, restlessness, slogans, and substitute pleasures leads him straight into annihilating dependence on the banalities, the massproduced goods, the stereotyped behavior, which he takes to be infallible signs of progress. Who, after all, would not wish to take part in a progress which would seem to be pointing the way upward for humanity? You only have to walk once down a metropolitan street with your eyes open, or to look through the advertisements in a newspaper, to see that what is offered far exceeds the individual’s power of resistance. The abundance displayed presents itself as the bright counterpole of the stark desolation and devastation that was our lot only a few years ago.

In these circumstances how can a man be expected to distinguish between increasing his consumption and increasing his human stature? How can one suggest to him the dreadful truth that he is continually declining, that his inner being is shrinking, and that with every new refinement in his way of living he is sinking deeper into the condition of a new barbarism, the chaotic crudity of which cannot be conjured away by any pharmaceutical product, or increase in speed, or improvement in the means of communication? It would certainly be idle to try to dissuade one‘s fellow from the use of narcotics or television sets, but perhaps it may still be worth while to call on him not to let himself be the slave of a civilization of which he is called the master.

Once upon a time savages were identifiable by their terror of blunderbusses and belief in the power of the medicine man. Today the place of these things has been taken by number of tubes, the cubic capacity of cylinders, and the effectiveness of sleep-inducing drugs; in other words, things intended to drive away fear at the passage of time and the certainty of death. Doctors and engineers are there to bamboozle the mortal about his lot and banish from sight the abyss of the fleeting nature of life. With that the counterpole of philosophy has been reached. The object of civilization is to help people bury their heads in the sand. Me have entered upon a new barbarism, the clock of which points glitteringly to high noon.

Translated by Eric Mosbacher