From the September-October 2015 issue of News & Letters
Oakland, Calif.—On July 24, a remarkable discussion with Philip Zimbardo followed the San Francisco premiere of The Stanford Prison Experiment, a movie based on his notorious 1971 experiment. In the two-week experiment, well-balanced students were randomly assigned the roles of prison guards or prisoners. The movie recreates the unfolding of the actual experiment, which had to be stopped early when “guards” became sadistic while “prisoners” displayed extreme stress.
The first person to speak in the discussion exclaimed that Zimbardo should have been fired and she walked out. The second person, former Black Panther Elaine Brown, thanked Zimbardo profusely for showing graphically how the prison power relationship engendered the behavior of these individuals. Brown said his study has been invaluable to the prisoners’ movement against the brutal conditions in California prisons.
Indeed, those in Zimbardo’s research circle became expert witnesses against the arbitrary guard-run system of gang validation that has kept so many in perpetual solitary confinement in California prisons.
Zimbardo went on to write a best seller, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, in 2007 after he testified about why U.S. soldiers inflicted torture at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.
The Lucifer Effect condemns not just social situations that produce evil but also the whole system that produces those situations. What is the connection between the system and this misery into which everyday relations can so easily collapse? The book concludes that what can make a difference is highlighting the banality of evil and encouraging the pervasive unrecognized good in everyday heroic acts that resist situational influences.
Zimbardo rightly calls “dehumanization,” or “the perception that other people are less than human,” central to transforming “ordinary people into…perpetrators of evil.”
The meaning of that little word “human” was Marx’s focus when he first criticized psychology, and science in general, for being a lie insofar as it has a different basis than life. Being human turned for Marx on needing human beings as human beings, namely needing them according to their species character as free beings whose self-determining, free, conscious activity is not a mere means but the first necessity of life.
Though Marx contrasted being human with alienated labor that turned the worker’s life activity into a mere means to life, being human is a more total concept. What throws post-Marx Marxists for a loop is that Marx singled out the man/woman relationship as the most fundamental in measuring whether we need a human being as a human being. Marx’s principle of freedom as human essence never changed yet was multi-dimensional from the start and was open to the new. This principle shaped Marx’s whole life of revolutionary theory and practice, including in the end (1875) his concept of an explicitly Marxist organization.
This humanism was implicit in the objection from one student assigned the role of prisoner, that he was not being treated like a human being. He was met with brutal punishment for saying so. Another telling moment was when Zimbardo came in to call off the experiment after only six days and the first question from the student assigned the role of guard, dubbed “John Wayne” because he took the lead in new imaginitive ways to humiliate the prisoners, was whether they were going to get paid for the full two weeks. This concern with pay reveals the pervasive “situational variable” that infects “pure” science, namely the cash nexus between humans that degrades human activity into a mere means.
When Marx declared that any science that is separate from life is “a priori a lie,” it meant that science can never be reduced to identifying how social situations change people. In other words, the remedy for the “Lucifer effect” is not merely encouraging heroic ethical individuals. Take, for example, Marx’s statement that “social being determines consciousness.” For many post-Marx Marxists, Marx’s concept of science stopped with this observation. To them, behaving ethically is an afterthought. Marx’s more total concept of being “active scientifically” included individual responsibility that began from his own “theoretical existence as social being.” Theoretical existence as a social being is itself the activity of a “general consciousness” that confronts the hostility between actual social being and being truly human, that is, free “species-life.” The goal is to overcome the hostility between individual life and species life in a way that never again counterposes society as an abstraction against the individual.
Nothing reveals the multi-dimensional struggle to achieve Marx’s real “species-life” better than the ongoing struggle against perpetual solitary confinement, or torture, in California’s prisons. (See Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers: “We want to be validated as human” and its 2014 update “Prisoners in solitary, in the new Bastille aim to break today’s ‘mind-forged manacles.'”)
Faruq, a California prisoner (see page 8), wrote that the prison movement for new human relations is one with the “efforts in various countries today trying to lift the curse of capital social relations.” Both, he added, are a “quest to unify subjectivity and objectivity—in other words, for an individual’s thinking/feelings to be reflected in their given reality. With such a full expression of humanism society can be reconstructed on human foundations.”
Since the Stanford prison experiment, Philip Zimbardo has done much to question psychology as a science beyond the “ethical time capsule” in which that experiment occurred and which he said could never be repeated today. Yet the totality of the present crisis means we are not only being ethically tested anew whether on pervasive prison brutality or when Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called Europe’s calculated neglect—resulting in 900 deaths of fleeing immigrants—our day’s “Srebrenica” (see “Refugees risk death fleeing war, terror and climate chaos,” July-Aug. N&L).
Our day, in Europe as elsewhere, again has an undertow of genocidal fascist nationalism out to reduce the other to less than human and is actively derailing any ethical treatment of today’s millions of refugees. Facing that reality demands a full return to Marx’s original humanist philosophy of freedom as the absolute opposite to alienated labor.