Pathfinders: Capitalism by gaslight

In the 1944 film Gaslight, a young couple (Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman) move back into the house of her aunt, murdered years before. The wife is an ordinary and intelligent woman, however she is subtly undermined by her husband’s constant references to her forgetfulness, silly anxieties and overactive imagination. He says these things so often, she thinks they must be true. When she starts to hear strange noises in the ceiling, he clucks soothingly, tells her she’s tired and advises her to get better rest. When the lights keep going down on the gas lamps, he expresses heartfelt concern that she’s becoming overwrought, and needs medication. He makes her doubt the evidence of her senses. He makes her think she’s going mad. In fact, he is doing it all on purpose. The plan is to have her committed to a mental institution so he can steal her inheritance from the aunt he murdered. He is foiled in the end, of course, but she is left a traumatised wreck.

The term gaslighting has come to describe a ‘form of psychological manipulation in which a person… covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual… making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them… low self-esteem. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and misinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilise the victim and delegitimise the victim’s beliefs’ (Wikipedia).

The Wikipedia entry describes how sociopaths and narcissists use gaslighting as a tactic in mental abuse, and how victims develop anxiety, depression, self-hatred and ‘a sense of learned helplessness’. Feminists have highlighted this as a feature of some abusive male behaviour within the context of power-relationships and domestic violence, however it does not seem to be especially gendered and it is also a feature of some parent-child relationships.

The psychological damage caused by this behaviour ranges from self-doubt to suicide. The reasons for the behaviour lie in various personality disorders involved in deflecting blame and controlling others.

A recent BBC article shows how entire industries can emulate the behaviour of such a personality disorder in order to deflect criticism (‘How the oil industry made us doubt climate change’, BBC Online, 20 September – A climate academic and former Exxon employee describes how Exxon denied the evidence of their own world-class research: ‘What they did was immoral. They spread doubt about the dangers of climate change when their own researchers were confirming how serious a threat it was.’ In internal emails, Exxon told employees to ‘emphasise the uncertainty’ in the scientific consensus, and ‘urge a balanced scientific approach’. What they meant was deflect, misdirect, contradict, misinform, and gaslight the public.

It wasn’t just Exxon, the whole fossil fuel industry was at it, aiming to ‘reposition global warming as theory (not fact)’, much as creationists have tried to do with evolution. The Mad Men of Marketing identified their target audiences. One was ‘older, lesser educated males from larger households who are not typically information seekers.’ The other was ‘younger, low-income women, who could be targeted with bespoke adverts which would liken those who talked about climate change to a hysterical doom-saying cartoon chicken.’ The aim wasn’t to refute the facts with lies, because lies would be exposed. Instead, they sought to drown the facts in noise, in order to baffle and confuse the public.

In short, they followed the classic ‘tobacco playbook’ and mounted a ‘whitecoat project’, in which they hired or induced supposedly independent scientific consultants to press the argument that the science was uncertain and that the need for action was exaggerated. Bribes weren’t always necessary. Though it would be nice to think scientists generally rely on evidence-based thinking in their political attitudes, right-wing bigots do exist, and are willing to subvert science in pursuit of political agendas. A former vice president of the right-wing Cato Institute, in a belated mea culpa, admitted to gaslighting for the oil industry: ‘For 25 years, climate sceptics like me made it a core matter of ideological identity that if you believe in climate change, then you are by definition a socialist. That is what climate sceptics have done.’

Surprisingly, or maybe not, it turned out that some of these politically motivated scientists – and non-experts in the field in question, were the same people who had spoken out years before on behalf of the tobacco industry and against the anti-smoking lobby. This, it became clear, was a very old and well-rehearsed strategy. As a tobacco firm put it, back in the 1950s, ‘Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.’

Apart from trivial references to some American political shenanigans from the likes of Clinton and latterly Trump, and a nod to other presidents like Putin, the Wikipedia article currently does not expand on the large-scale use of gaslighting by industries like oil and gas, or tobacco, or those of pesticides, sugar, plastics and many others. But there are limits to what any single article can cover. This psychological manipulation is part of the fabric of capitalist ideology itself.

Think about how often you, as an intelligent human being and wage slave in capitalism, have been induced to doubt your own knowledge and judgment, how often you’ve been persuaded that you don’t know enough and should leave important matters to politicians. Think how often you’ve wrestled with the baffling complexities of complicated public debates until you’ve simply given up. Think how bad you’ve felt about your own failings, your own silly anxieties, your own inadequacies at work, at home, in school, in relationships, in your emotions and in your social life. Think how often you’ve felt dismissed, disregarded, put down, ignored, condescended to, lied to and patronised. Think how you’ve been made to think it’s just you, that nobody else has a problem or can even be trusted to understand, that maybe you need help or treatment or drugs or counselling because you just can’t cope. Think about how often you blame yourself, you should have tried harder, you should have believed in yourself more, you shouldn’t have been so weak, you shouldn’t have let yourself or others down.

All of this is what it feels like to be gaslighted. Your problem isn’t that you’re inadequate, it’s that you’re being ruthlessly and expertly manipulated by a rich and powerful regime which aims to stay rich and powerful, even if the world burns, by keeping you in a state of learned helplessness, where you do what you’re told and vote for leaders to think for you.

Socialists want a revolution to abolish capitalism before the world burns, but we also get something out of being socialists right now. Specifically, we get the opposite of gaslighting. We thrive in a community of mutual respect and support, where we each have a voice, where nobody is the boss, and where we can relax in the company of people who understand exactly how we think and feel, because they are workers too. If you’re sick of the gaslit world out there, try some daylight with us.


Socialist Standard October 2020

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