We Are All Victims of the Stockholm Syndrome

By Glenn Ashton · 10 Nov 2009

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Picture: Malingering
Picture: Malingering

It is fascinating how the majority of well-educated and generally sussed people are continuing with their lives as if there is not a single problem on the horizon. As hard as I think about it, I simply cannot arrive at any firm conclusion as to why so many supposedly aware people are so averse to changing our ways. 

Living as I do on the fringes of the activist society, where techno-hippies talk of change, of transition towns where we can set up barter systems, urban gardens and car pooling that will enable us to walk more lightly on the delicate fabric of the earth that daily becomes more threadbare, things change at a glacial pace, if at all.

Change is never easy. It’s particularly difficult to lead by example, to break our accustomed patterns and habits. Human existence is like a super tanker, unable to deviate from course, even if obvious minefields lie ahead. Why are we so slow to react? What prevents us from changing our destructive habits and social conventions? Is it the lack of real alternatives to our consumerist, capitalist society? Truth is, there are multiple alternative models. Change is possible. 

Maybe our tardiness is caused by our particular form of government. The majority of us live in nominal democracies, so surely we should be able to change the system from within? The reality is that most democracies have been axiomatically subverted by the neo-liberal agenda, superintended by the corporate-political nexus. Even though corporate reform remains a huge challenge given the single-minded focus on profit, this too provides insufficient explanation for our inaction.

Perhaps the answer lies within human selfishness, or self-centredness? How else can one justify the obscene accumulation of wealth by a minority that clearly exceeds their requirements? Is this simply greed, or is it indicative of a more subtle degree of insecurity? Wealth accumulation may be motivated by various insecurities; for instance, the need to constantly protect against life's uncertainties. The psychology of acquisitiveness, if you will.

Humanity has only recently broken free of the tyranny of the seasons, when we lived well in times of plenty but collectively suffered in times of scarcity. Our responses to this tyranny even manifested physically, for instance in how the Khoisan people and the 'Venus' figures of Pleistocene Europe exhibited steatopygia, or fat accumulating bodily tissues that could store energy as physical insurance in times of want. Could the need for wealth accumulation, for conspicuous consumption actually be a psychological manifestation of steatopygic behaviour? 

I do not believe these explanations explain our conspicuously self-destructive behaviour. I believe that there is another, far more plausible explanation for our lemming like auto-destructive behavioural patterns. And it is this:

After a bungled bank robbery in a suburb of Stockholm in 1973, the robbers held a group of hostages in the bank vault for 5 days. What was remarkable about this siege was the fact that the hostages openly sided with the robbers and not with the police who were attempting to free them. 

The captives felt more threatened by the behaviour of the police than their captors, who they perceived as protectors. This empathetic relationship between captor and hostage was termed 'The Stockholm Syndrome' by the police psychologist on the scene, Nils Bejerot. One of the hostages even maintained a friendship with the robbers over many years.

Perhaps the most famous instance of the Stockholm Syndrome was that of the newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by the left-wing urban guerrilla group, The Symbionese Liberation Army, in 1974. Despite being locked in a cupboard, abused, raped and starved Patty Hearst swapped sides and partook in various robberies, eventually being jailed for her collaboration but later pardoned by Presidential decree.

Since then many other instances of the Stockholm Syndrome have been exhibited and researched, ranging from kidnapped children choosing to stay with their captors to abused women remaining with their partners, from aircraft hijack victims to prisoners of war and from abused children to members of cults. Although there is some discussion as to whether the Stockholm Syndrome adequately fulfils the criteria of a psychiatric disorder, four distinct criteria identify those who have fallen victim to the syndrome.

First, is a clear threat to the victim. Second, is the ability of the perpetrator to show kindness or favour of some sort. Thirdly, there is an immersion in the ideals of the perpetrator, in what may be termed brainwashing. Finally, there is a sense of dependency, of being unable to escape the clutches of the perpetrator.

These criteria accurately describe our relationship to exploitative capitalism and its ecologically destructive consumerist culture that besieges us with its overt and covert messages that buying and consuming define what we are and will in various ways make us better people.

Let’s examine the first criterion. We are effectively threatened, both extraneously and subliminally, by consumer culture. Failure to conform to the paradigm will, as our parents warn us, land us up as street sweepers or hobos. Non- compliance invites exclusion and virtual social excommunication. 

As far as being kind, well, consumer culture is as kind as can be. Everything is available, from fast cars to delectable food, a cornucopia of choice, all presented in malls that have displaced the connection of main street and community that was intrinsic to our society even a generation ago. Malls have replaced the spiritual and the natural, surrounding us with glass, not grass.

As far as brainwashing goes, is there any other system that has entire industries dedicated to brainwashing people into the culture of buy, buy, buy? Aspirational TV messages, movies, soap operas, billboards and subtle PR stories are inserted into the mass media to shift our collective perceptions of each other and ourselves. Consumerism is portrayed as cool and not as what it really is, namely the antithesis of our historical values. 

Just as the most affected victims of the Stockholm Syndrome are young and impressionable, so too, consumer culture aggressively bombards the young with constant subliminal messages that you are worth more if you dress in their branded product, or mimic some badly behaved corporate-invented clone like Britney Spears or Snoop Dogg. Consumer driven capitalism morphs from the angelic to the demonic in the flash of a camera.

As far as the sense of dependency goes, well, what alternatives are there? Whilst some people attempt to change, most are trapped by induced insecurity, caught on the treadmill of a meaningless life, unable to perceive the innate evil of the system and how it manipulates the vulnerable through appealing to the lowest common denominator. The end result is a self-destructive system that threatens not only its inhabitants but also its host, the earth. 

We are effectively hostage to a system that exhibits all the attributes of a psychopath, as so elegantly analysed in the documentary, The Corporation. The question is how to escape the clinch of the Stockholm syndrome? 

Firstly, we need to recognise our situation and see the problem for what it is. Second, we need to examine the alternatives that will shift us away from the inherent misery of the consumer culture.

We are all victims of this illness and I hope that by sharing this meme that we begin to expand the public recognition and consciousness of our situation. It is notable that the most unequal societies are also the most prone to depression and dissatisfaction. We are all – rich and poor alike - victims of an inhumane, profit driven paradigm. We all exhibit the symptoms of the Stockholm Syndrome and consequently need to embark on collective therapy to heal ourselves of this mass psychosis, epitomised by obscene levels of conspicuous consumption amongst the wealthy, which are in turn aspired to by the poor. 

In order to find a resolution to our dilemma we need to analyse what is beneficial while rejecting the bad. We need to build toward creating a more egalitarian and inclusive society, accepting people for what they are not what they portray themselves to be. We need to radically question how we define ourselves as individuals and shift from our little private empires of misery and divisive conspicuous consumption, towards strong and inclusive communities.

Given the twin crises of economic and ecological instability, we are ideally placed to expose the sham that is projected onto the walls of our caves as reality. Reinstating values that are positive rather than destructive, putting people before profit, placing a true value on natural resources, each of these are steps toward rehabilitating both our damaged psyches and our crippled ecosystems. 

We are one people on one planet, with no available alternatives. We can no longer allow ourselves to be held hostage to a system that smothers our humanity just as certainly as it destroys the biological complexity that nurtures us.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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