Distinct from the way economists wrongly estimate or deliberately hide within their science the omnipresence of authority of power and the corresponding faith of the people over whom they have authority – they never take into account the extent to which conformity is equally essential to our actual economic order – about this, I want to offer some reflections here.
If we understand conformity as the tendency of people to think, feel and act like their neighbors or like their elders, we see a phenomenon of natural similarity to the faith of children in their parents. It would appear that the nature we have had programmed into us is for filial piety, except the omnipresent reality of bad authority in patriarchal society usually changes our original faith into every class of neurotic belief that all contribute to alarming us of our own reality. In a similar way, it would seem that we have had the nature to believe that ‘vox popula vox dei’; and up to some point it’s true that when sufficiently intimate groups are formed, certain things turn off the lights more easily, things that incline them to such reunions, to offer to the individual ways to see alternatives to their prejudices or bizarre opinions, true healing power. But it is also true that the tendency of people is to overlook their own judgements in an implicit supposition of that which those surrounding them see better, and this constitutes a potentially alienating force.
An example of this was raised through the experiments of Solomon Asch in the 1950s, in which he invited his experimental subjects to judge the objective characteristics of certain images along the length of a line in respect to another, or whether a pair of lines was parallel or not. He included secret experimental subjects; nevertheless, in the especially prepared groups that included the rest of the present people, they followed the instructions to give incorrect responses, and Asch could verify that those deliberately incorrect responses influenced those of the ingenuous subjects, and across these experiments Ash could establish the concept of “independence of justice”. He could, also, observe that this experiment was of poor quality.
In more recent times Phillip Zimbardo observed the conduct of people who accompanied an experimenter who, for his part, carried out the commands (secret) of administering electric shocks of growing intensity to an experimental subject in a attached chair, and Zimbardo could observe that the tendency of people was to accept what was happening – being put in the position of accomplices to torture - as normal in the majority of the cases.
In both experiments – the old and the new – independence of justice came into play; but to the extent that the context could be said to be irrelevant in the first, in the second as in our complex reality, one can appreciate that the tendency of people to get carried away by someone else’s conduct and/or for excessive passivity that has strong ethical consequences.
In a third experiment conducted by Stanford University, they invited the experimental subjects to adopt alternative roles of police or of prisoners, who stayed in the cells similar to those of prisoners and were provided with corresponding clothing. Also, in the case of the guards, with clubs. As a surprise to the experimenters, the investigation resulted in an unusual level of violence, in which the supposed police or guardians collaborated quite well with the role that they had been assigned, which suggests that it is not only conformity that has been a factor, but also that opportunity that the political role serves as an excuse for a potential expression of ignored sadism. This experiment has been detailed by Zimbrado in the book called The Lucifer Effect, and as I have already observed, it does not only deal with conformity. This specifically seems interesting to because it suggests that in diverse destructive acts, which we collectively perceive or interpret as simple “conformity”, an element of irresponsible protection of the latent destructiveness in people enters into the game.
It is the conformity of psychological force that feeds stability of established order or status quo, and we can compare it to physical inertia; for this, if we would like to change our political and economic system, we don’t only have to confront the personal interest of groups of those who agree that they don’t change, but we should also take from the story a similarity to that which occurs when a great transatlantic vessel approaches its destination port. A small vessel could quickly turn on its course, but one cannot hope for a giant ship to alter the angle of its navigation in little time. Analogously, our economic order gives us the impression of being sufficiently dysfunctional that we want to introduce a change of course, but at the time of introducing such change we should take into consideration the forces of conformity, that, like those of inertia, seem to ask for the continuation of the course that we are familiar with.
The evil of conformity might seem less evil than the passion of command, which secretly serves its own interests or the exercise of a questionable will, but naturally the conformity in a patriarchal society is not different than the conformity with all that patriarchal order brings. In addition, much of the conduct of the masses, like that of groups of powerful people, suggests (like the experiment with “prisoners” and “guardians”) that the potential evil of conformity to rise to not only with the size of a group but also with the prestige and power of its members, and nothing suggests this as strongly as the circumstance that motivated Daniel Ellsberg to write The Pentagon Papers – a fragment of history which, during the Nixon presidency, brought the United States very close to destroying millions of Europeans in a plan of preventative attack during the Cold War. With great surprise Ellsberg discovered that those who had agreed that the attack (“preemptive strike”) had not been monstrous evil-doers, but friends of his with whom he had only just met have to tea. But how? Perhaps due to the same thing that Ciceron observed: that each Roman senator was a wise but the senate in its entirety behaved like an idiot. And it is this conformity that causes a great number of important people to be in the middle, even more disposed to conformity than ordinary people. Is what Ellsberg observed in respect to the higher state of Nixon an important factor in the consensual destruction of members of our current plutocratic oligarchy?