Written by Charles Eisenstein
The first principle of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.
– Mohandas K. Gandhi
I once read an account of bullying in rural America in the early 20th century. The narrator said, “If a victim did not stand up to them, there was no limit to how far the bullies would go.” He described them tying another child to the train tracks as a train approached (on the parallel track). There was no appeasing the bullies. Each capitulation only whetted their appetite for new and crueler humiliations.
The psychology of bullies is well understood: compensation for a loss of power, reenactment of trauma with roles reversed, and so forth. Beyond all that, though, the Bully archetype draws from another source. On some unconscious level, what the bully wants is for the victim to cease being a victim and to stand up to him. That is why submission does not appease a bully, but only invites further torment.
There is an initiatory possibility in the abuser-victim relationship. In that relationship and perhaps beyond it, the victim seeks to control the world through submissiveness. If I am submissive enough, pitiable enough, the abuser may finally relent. Other people might step in (the Rescuer archetype). There is nothing intrinsically wrong with submission or what improvisational theater pioneer Keith Johnstone called a low-status play. There are indeed some situations when doing that is necessary to survive. However, when the submissive posture becomes a habit and the victim loses touch with her capability and strength, the initiatory potential of the situation emerges. The bully or abuser intensifies the abuse until the victim reaches a point where the situation is so intolerable that she throws habit and caution to the wind. She discovers a capacity within her that she did not know she had. She becomes someone new and greater than she had been. That is a pretty good definition of an initiation.
When that happens, when the victim stands his ground and fights back, quite often the bully leaves him alone. On the soul level, his work is done. The initiation is complete. Of course, one might also say that the bully is a coward who wants only submissive victims. Or one might say that resistance spoils the sought-after psychodrama of dominance and submission. There is no guarantee that the resistance will be successful, but even if it is not, the dynamics of the relationship change when the victim decides she is through being a victim. She may discover that a lot of the power the bully had was in her fear and not in his actual physical control.
Until that shift happens, even if a rescuer intervenes, the situation is unlikely to change. Either the intervention will fail, or the rescuer will become a new abuser. The world will ask again and again whether the victim is ready to take a stand.
Please do not interpret this as a cavalier suggestion to someone in an abusive relationship to simply “take a stand.” That is easier said than done, and especially easy to say in ignorance of just what sort of courage would be required. In some situations, especially when children are involved, there is no way to resist without horrible risk to oneself or innocent others. Yet even in the most hopeless situations, the victim often learns a certain strength that she didn’t know she had. Because submission often leads to further, intensifying violation, eventually she will reach her breaking point where courage is born. In that moment, freedom from the abuser is more important than life itself.
The relationship between our governing authorities and the public today bears many similarities to the abuser-victim dynamic. Facing a bully, it is futile to hope that the bully will relent if you don’t resist. Acquiescence invites further humiliation. Similarly, it is wishful thinking to hope that the authorities will simply hand back the powers they have seized over the course of the pandemic. Indeed, if our rights and freedoms exist only by the whim of those authorities, conditional on their decision to grant them, then they are not rights and freedoms at all, but only privileges. By its nature, freedom is not something one can beg for; the posture of begging already grants the power relations of subjugation. The victim can beg the bully to relent, and maybe he will—temporarily—satisfied that the relation of dominance has been affirmed. The victim is still not free of the bully.
That is why I feel impatient when someone speaks of “When the pandemic is over” or “When we are able to travel again” or “When we are able to have festivals again.” None of these things will happen by themselves. Compared to past pandemics, Covid is more a social-political phenomenon than it is an actual deadly disease. Yes, people are dying, but even assuming that everyone in the official numbers died “of” and not “with” Covid, casualties number one-third to one-ninth those of the 1918 flu; per-capita it is one-twelfth to one-thirty-sixth.1 As a sociopolitical phenomenon, there is no guaranteed end to it. Nature will not end it, at any rate; it will end only through the agreement of human beings that it has ended.2 This has become abundantly clear with the Omicron Variant. Political leaders, public health officials, and the media are whipping up fear and reinstituting policies that would have been unthinkable a few years ago for a disease that, at the present writing, has killed one person globally. So, we cannot speak of the pandemic ever being over unless we the people declare it to be over.
Of course, I could be wrong here. Perhaps Omicron is, as World Medical Association chairman Frank Ulrich Montgomery has warned, as dangerous as Ebola. Regardless, the question remains: will we allow ourselves to be held forever hostage to the possibility of an epidemic disease? That possibility will never disappear.
Another thing I’ve been hearing a lot of recently is that “Covid tyranny is bound to end soon, because people just aren’t going to stand for it much longer.” It would be more accurate to say, “Covid tyranny will continue until people no longer stand for it.” That brings up the question, “Am I standing for it?” Or am I waiting for other people to end it for me, so that I don’t have to? In other words, am I waiting for the rescuer, so that I needn’t take the risk of standing up to the bully?
If you do put up with it, waiting for others to resist instead, then you affirm a general principle of “waiting for others to do it.” Having affirmed that principle, the forlorn hope that others will resist rings hollow. Why should I believe others will do what I’m unwilling to do? That is why pronouncements about the inevitability of a return to normalcy, though they seem hopeful, carry an aura of delusion and despair.
In fact, there is no obvious limit to what people will put up with, just as there is no limit to what an abusive power will do to them.
If the end of Covid bullying is not an inevitability, then what is it? It is a choice. It is precisely the initiatory moment in which the victim—that is, the public—discovers its power. At the very beginning of the pandemic I called it a coronation: an initiation into sovereignty. Covid has shown us a future toward which we have long been hurtling, a future of technologically mediated relationships, ubiquitous surveillance, big tech information control, obsession with safety, shrinking civil liberties, widening wealth inequality, and the medicalization of life. All these trends predate Covid. Now we see in sharp relief where we have been headed. Is this what we want? An automatic inertial trend has become conscious, available for choice. But to choose something else, we must wrest control away from the institutions administering the current system. That requires a restoration of real democracy; i.e., popular sovereignty, in which we no longer passively accept as inevitable the agendas of established authority, and in which we no longer beg for privileges disguised as freedoms.
Despite appearances, Covid has not been the end of democracy. It has merely revealed that we were already not in a democracy. It showed where the power really is and how easily the facade of freedom could be stripped from us. It showed that we were “free” only at the pleasure of elite institutions. By our ready acquiescence, it showed us something about ourselves.
We were already unfree. We were already conditioned to submission.
In Orwell’s 1984, Winston’s interrogator O’Brien states: “The more the Party is powerful, the less it will be tolerant: the weaker the opposition, the tighter the despotism.” The Covid era has seen endless indignities, humiliations, and abuse heaped upon the public, each more outrageous than the last. It is as if someone is performing a psychological experiment to see how much people are willing to take. Let’s tell them that masks don’t work, and then reverse it and require them to mask up. Let’s tell them they can’t shake hands. Let’s tell them they can’t go near each other. Let’s shut down their churches, choirs, businesses, and festivals. Let’s stop them from gathering for the holidays. Let’s make them inject poison into their bodies. Let’s make them do it again. Let’s make them do it to their children. Let’s censor their first-hand stories as “false information.” Let’s feed them obvious absurdities to see what they’ll swallow. Let’s make promises and break them. Let’s make the same promises again and break them again. Let’s require authorization for their every movement. Wow, they’re still going along with it? Let’s see how much more they will take.
I have written the above as if the bullying powers were a bunch of cackling sadists delighting in the humiliation of their victims. That is not accurate. Most people staffing our governing institution are normal, decent human beings. While it is also true that these institutions are hospitable environments for martinets, control freaks, and sadists, more often they turn people into martinets, control freaks, and sadists. These individuals are more symptom than cause of the generalized abuse of the public today. They are functionaries, playing the roles that a systemically abusive drama requires. Causing suffering is not their root motivation, it is to establish control. The quest for power doubtless finds justification in the idea that it is all for the greater good. Yes, they think, it would be bad if evil people were in charge of the surveillance, censorship, and coercive apparatus, but fortunately it is we, the rational, intelligent, far-seeing, science-based good guys who are at the helm.
Through the absolute conviction by those who hold power that they are the good guys, power transforms from a means to an end. As maybe it was to begin with—Orwell dispels the false justifications of power when he has O’Brien say:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?’
The theme resumes on the next page:
He paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: ‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’
Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.
‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating?
Thus it is that the privation, humiliation, and suffering of those they dominate is pleasing to the controllers. It isn’t suffering per se that pleases them. They may even consider it a regrettable necessity. It pleases them as a hallmark of submission.
Covid-era policies cannot be understood merely through the lens of public health. In an earlier series of essays I explored them from the perspective of sacrificial violence, mob morality, dehumanization, and the exploitation of these by fascistic forces. Equally important is the perspective of power. Seeing Covid through the lens of rational public health, of course we should expect the “end of the pandemic” quite soon. Seeing through the lens of power, we cannot be so sanguine, any more than the bullied child can hope the bully will stop because, after all, I’ve done everything he told me to.
The bully doesn’t want the victim to do X, Y, and Z for their own sake. He wants to establish the principle that the victim will do X, Y, Z, or A, B, or C, on demand. That’s why arbitrary, unreasonable, ever-shifting demands are characteristic of an abusive relationship. The more irrational the demand, the better. The controllers find it satisfying to see everyone dutifully wearing their masks. As with O’Brien, it is power, not actual public safety, that inspires them. That is why they roundly ignore science casting doubt on masks, lockdowns, and social distancing. Effectiveness was never the root motivation for those policies to begin with.
I learned about this too in school. In the senseless, degrading busy work and the arbitrary rules, I detected a hidden curriculum: a curriculum of submission.3 The principal issued a series of trivial rules under the pretext of “maintaining a positive learning environment.” Neither the students nor the administration actually believed that wearing hats or chewing gum impeded learning, but that didn’t matter. Punishments were not actually for the infraction itself; the real infraction was disobedience. That is the chief crime in a dominance/submission relationship. Thus, when German police patrol the square with meter sticks to enforce social distancing, no one need believe that the enforcement will actually stop anyone from getting sick. The offense they are patrolling against is disobedience. Disobedience is indeed offensive to the abusive party, and to anyone who fully accepts a submissive role in relation to it. When “Karens” report on their neighbors for having more than the permitted number of guests, is it a civic-minded desire to slow the spread that motivates them? Or are they offended that someone is breaking the rules?
It is uncomfortable for those who have knuckled under to a bully to see someone else stand up to him. It disrupts the idea of powerlessness and the role, which may have become perversely comfortable, of the victim. It invokes the initiatory moment by making an unconscious choice conscious: “I could do that too.” To resist the abuser asks others if they will resist too. It is far from inevitable that they will accept the invitation, yet the example of courage is more powerful than any exhortation.
Today a wave of resistance to Covid policies is surging across the globe. You’ll see little mention of it in mainstream media, but thousands and tens of thousands are protesting all across Europe, Thailand, Japan, Australia, North America… pretty much anywhere that lockdowns and vaccine mandates have been applied. People are risking arrest to defy lockdowns and curfews. They are walking out of jobs, losing licenses, enduring forced closures of their businesses, sometimes even losing custody of their children because they refuse to comply with vaccine mandates. They are getting kicked off social media for speaking out. They are sacrificing concerts, sports, skiing, travel, college, careers, and livelihoods. Under compulsory vaccination laws In Austria, they will soon risk prison.
Some people have much more to lose than others by speaking out, refusing vaccination, or engaging in civil disobedience. As someone who has relatively little to lose, it is not my job to demand other people be brave. It isn’t anyone’s job. We can, though, describe the reality of the situation. That fosters bravery, because it isn’t only external fear, force, and threat that breeds submission. In an abusive relationship the victim often adopts some of the abuser’s narrative: I am weak. I am contemptible. I am powerless. You are right. I am wrong. I need you. I deserve this. I am crazy. This is normal. This is OK.
When the victim internalizes the abuser, I say that the bandits have breached the castle walls. I know well what it is like to be a fugitive in my own castle, dodging the patrolling invaders to protect my secret sanity.
My understanding of the bullying victim comes from direct experience. I was among the youngest in my grade and reached puberty quite late. At age 12 I was a scrawny 4’10”, 90-pound weakling among the hulking adolescents of my former friend group. Their cruel jokes and torments were mostly not intended to cause physical pain, but rather to assert dominance and humiliate. Fighting back was not much of an option—the ringleader was literally twice my weight. When I tried to fight back, the gang looked at each other with amusement. “Uh oh,” they said, “Chucky’s getting mad! Did your daddy tell you to stand up to us, Chucky?” The next thing I knew, I was on the floor in a submission hold, surrounded by a chorus of mocking laughter. That was what happened when I resisted. Yet submission didn’t work either; it appeased them for a day or perhaps a few minutes or not at all. It was an invitation to further violence. In this difficult situation, I internalized the abusers by taking on their opinion of myself as pathetic and contemptible.4
In this case, literally fighting back was futile. My initiatory journey took the form of stepping into the unknown of finding new friends—a frightening prospect in the cacophony and chaos of the junior high cafeteria. Exiting the role of victim doesn’t usually mean physical combat or legal combat, though it might. Invariably, it means refusing to comply with violation or humiliation. In real life it could be blocking a caller, getting a restraining order, or simply running away. It cannot be a mere gesture. It must be determined and sustained until the old role no longer beckons.
It is worth noting that none of my abusers were particularly bad people. Nor were those who joined in the laughter, nor those who stood by in disapproving silence. They went on to become solid contributing members of society, good fathers and husbands. There was something in the confluence of our biographies that called them to the role of abuser, enabler, or bystander at that moment. The abuser-victim drama issues a powerful casting call. An abusive spouse may no longer occupy that role in a subsequent marriage. The roles allow each actor to discover—and possibly integrate and transcend—something in themselves. So it is society-wide as well. What will the functionaries of our abusive, degrading, oppressive system become when the drama ends? Already a lot of them are getting sick of their roles. The victim does the abuser no favor by prolonging the drama.
Earlier I wrote that often, the point of courage comes when the pain of submission grows intolerable. The erstwhile victim reaches a breaking point and throws caution to the wind. The abuser may still wield the outward apparatus of power, but no longer does that power have an ally within the victim, who becomes ungovernable. A lot of people are reaching that breaking point now. Powering the aforementioned wave of resistance is a hurricane of fury brewing just offshore of official reality. If you want to get a sense of it, subscribe to the Telegram channel “They Say Its Rare.” It displays without comment Tweets from vaccine-harmed individuals and their friends and families. Thousands upon thousands of Tweets, raw, outraged, and indignant. Most of these people will never comply with vaccination again no matter what the pressure, nor will many of their friends. Perhaps this partly explains low public uptake of boosters. (That and the fact that the first two shots did not deliver the promised rewards of immunity or freedom.)
The drama continues. The bully does not relent at the first sign of resistance. On the soul level, the bully serves his purpose only when he provokes real, sustained courage. As resistance grows, so grows the coercion. We are very nearly at a tipping point. The scale is evenly balanced—so finely, perhaps, that the weight of one person may tip it. Could that person be you? Whatever reasons you have to comply, to stay silent, to keep your head down—and they may be very good reasons indeed—please do not accept the insidious false hope that someone else will take the risk if you do not.
What can one person do? Will it matter if I resist, if too many others do not? Five percent of the population can be locked up, locked in, or locked out of society. Forty percent cannot. Will you resist and risk being one of the five percent? Safer to wait and see, isn’t it. Safer to wait until after critical mass has been reached, and join the winning side.
Of all the lies of a controlling power, the key lie is the powerlessness of its victim. That lie is a form of sorcery, coming true to the extent it is believed. All modern people live within a pervasive metaphysical version of that lie. In a Newtonian universe of deterministic forces, indeed it matters little what one person does. It is wholly irrational for the discrete and separate self to be brave, to defy the mob, or to stand up to power. Sure, if lots of people do it, things will change, but you aren’t lots of people, you are just one person. So why not let other people do it? Your choice won’t much affect theirs.
To refute that logic with logic would require a metaphysical treatise that reclaims self and causality from their Cartesian prison. So I won’t use logic. Instead I’ll appeal to Logos—the fiery logic of the heart. Something in you knows that your private struggles and the choices of just-one-person are significant. Furthermore, something in you knows when the time has come to make the choice, to be brave. You can feel the approach of the breaking point. It may feel like, “I’ve had enough. Enough!” It may be a calm clarity. It may be a leap in the dark. Probably you recognize the moment I’m describing; most of us have gone through some life initiation of this kind, bursting out of a cocoon of fear. In that moment you know something significant has happened. The world looks different. That is because it is different.
An abuser, whether a person or a system, offers an opportunity to graduate to a new degree of sovereignty. We claim by example what a human being is. When made at risk, such a claim issues forth as a prayer. An intelligence beyond rational understanding responds to that prayer, and reorganizes the world around it. We may experience this as synchronicity, which seems to happen with uncanny frequency just at those moments where one takes a leap in the dark. She leaves the abusive spouse in the dead of night with nowhere to go. Yet she is not reckless, because she knows It is time. She steps out into nothingness and Lo! Something meets her foot. A path invisible from the starting point opens with each step along it.
So it shall be. The world will rearrange itself around the brave choices millions of people are making as they trust the knowledge, It is time. If you join us, you will be witness to a most marvelous paradox. The transition to a more beautiful world is a mass awakening into sovereignty, far beyond the doing of any hero, any leader, any individual. Yet you will know that it was you—your choice!—that was the fulcrum of the turning of the age.