Potential Converts

I’ll have to admit that I found a certain arrogance in Hoffer’s work I’d forgotten over the years. For instance, the opening section in the second section of his book called The Potential Converts is called “The Roles of the Undesirables in Human Affairs.” I can’t imagine ever using the term “Undesireables” to describe anyone, no matter how strongly I might disagree with them. Now, “Dumb Ass,” I like that term, wish I could have used it as a teacher.

Though I adamantly reject the term “inferior elements” I certainly agree with Hoffer’s main point here:

The reason that the inferior elements of a nation can exert a marked influence on its course is that they are wholly without reverence toward the present. They see their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to waste and wreck both: hence their recklessness and their will to chaos and anarchy. They also crave to dissolve their spoiled, meaningless selves in some soul-stirring spectacular communal undertaking — hence their proclivity for united action. Thus they are among the early recruits of revolutions, mass migrations and of religious, racial and chauvinist movements, and they imprint their mark upon these upheavals and movements which shape a nation’s character and history.

In retrospect it seems obvious that people who have nothing to live for personally are more apt to join a cause that does give their life meaning. I just wish more would examine their causes more carefully before joining.

I also agree with Hoffer’s explanation of why some poor people are more apt to join a mass movement than others:

So long as those who did the world’s work lived on a level of bare subsistence, they were looked upon and felt themselves as the traditionally poor. They felt poor in good times and bad. Depressions, however severe, were not seen as aberrations and enormities. But with the wide diffusion of a high standard of living, depressions and the unemployment they bring assumed a new aspect. The present-day workingman in the Western world feels unemployment as a degradation. He sees himself disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things, and is willing to listen to those who call for a new deal.

With television constantly showing people how extravagantly some people live while telling them they will be judged by what they consume, is it any wonder that a significant number of poor people feel that “their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy” when they see no possibility of moving up in the world? Why wouldn’t they be ready to take any action that provides meaning to their lives?

I don’t think I’ve encountered “ennui” since I missed the word on my SAT’s many, many years ago and wrote a college sociology paper on it. Personally I’ve never suffered from it, my personal ailment being exhaustion as the result of pursuing too many interests. I’m still not sure I know exactly what the term means, though I think it tends to refer to intellectuals who can’t find meaning in their life:

There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding the rise of mass movements there is reference to vast ennui; and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed. To a deliberate fomenter of mass upheavals, the report that people are bored stiff should be at least as encouraging as that they are suffering from intolerable economic or political abuses.

When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored. The consciousness of a barren, meaningless existence is the main fountainhead of boredom. People who are not conscious of their individual separateness, as is the case with those who are members of a compact tribe, church, party, etcetera, are not accessible to boredom. The differentiated individual is free of boredom only when he is engaged either in creative work or some absorbing occupation or when he is wholly engrossed in the struggle for existence. Pleasure-chasing and dissipation are ineffective palliatives. Where people live autonomous lives and are not badly off, yet are without abilities or opportunities for creative work or useful action, there is no telling to what desperate and fantastic shifts they might resort in order to give meaning and purpose to their lives.

I’m not ready to endorse Hoffer when he argues that “The boredom of spinsters and of women who can no longer find joy and fulfillment in marriage stems from an awareness of a barren, spoiled life. By embracing a holy cause and dedicating their energies and substance to its advancement, they find a new life full of purpose and meaning.” Recent history would seem to suggest that more likely recruits are college students who find academic life boring and turn to more active forms of protest.

3 thoughts on “Potential Converts

  1. I checked this book out from Suzallo when I was in grad school twenty-five years ago and read parts of it though I didn’t read it straight through. My dad had mentioned it to me once or twice with regard to mass psychology, probably forty years ago, concerning people who fit Hoffer’s profile for true believers. I read it around the time that Lee Iacocca was rescuing Chrysler with his K-cars and his slogan, “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” It was during Reagan’s first term when you had lots of blue collar auto workers who had abandoned unionism for Reaganomics and the trickle down gospel.

  2. I was a little surprised to read somewhere that Hoffer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983 by President Ronald Reagan.

  3. Loren,

    The “bored” of the TPM are they who had had their lives energized and given meaning by the threat of terrorism, the “clash of civilizations,” the possibility of imminent death at the hands of an unseen and alien enemy.

    Without the constant nervous tension of the threat of “terrorism,” the quest for homeostatic anxiety turns to the threat of “big government” and “armageddon.” Aided and abetted by the attention-seeking competitors in the marketplace.

What do you think?