Read the CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual: A Timeless Guide to Subverting Any Organization with “Purposeful Stupidity” (1944)

I’ve always admired people who can successfully navigate what I refer to as “Kafka’s Castle,” a term of dread for the many government and corporate agencies that have an inordinate amount of power over our permanent records, and that seem as inscrutable and chillingly absurd as the labyrinth the character K navigates in Kafka’s last allegorical novel. Even if you haven’t read The Castle, if you work for such an entity—or like all of us have regular dealings with the IRS, the healthcare and banking system, etc.—you’re well aware of the devilish incompetence that masquerades as due diligence and ties us all in knots. Why do multi-million and billion dollar agencies seem unable, or unwilling, to accomplish the simplest of tasks? Why do so many of us spend our lives in the real-life bureaucratic nightmares satirized in the The Office and Office Space?

One answer comes via Laurence J. Peter’s 1969 satire The Peter Principle—which offers the theory that managers and executives get promoted to the level of their incompetence—then, David Brent-like, go on to ruin their respective departments. The Harvard Business Review summed up disturbing recent research confirming and supplementing Peter’s insights into the narcissism, overconfidence, or actual sociopathy of many a government and business leader. But in addition to human failings, there’s another possible reason for bureaucratic disorder; the conspiracy-minded among us may be forgiven for assuming that in many cases, institutional incompetence is the result of deliberate sabotage from both above and below. The ridiculous inner workings of most organizations certainly make a lot more sense when viewed in the light of one set of instructions for “purposeful stupidity,” namely the once top-secret Simple Sabotage Field Manual, written in 1944 by the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Now declassified and freely available on the Homeland Security website, the manual the agency describes as “surprisingly relevant” was once distributed to OSS officers abroad to assist them in training “citizen-saboteurs” in occupied countries like Norway and France. Such people, writes Rebecca Onion at Slate, “might already be sabotaging materials, machinery, or operations of their own initiative,” but may have lacked the devious talent for sowing chaos that only an intelligence agency can properly master. Genuine laziness, arrogance, and mindlessness may surely be endemic. But the Field Manual asserts that “purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature” and requires a particular set of skills. The citizen-saboteur “frequently needs pressure, stimulation or assurance, and information and suggestions regarding feasible methods of simple sabotage.”

You can read and download the full document here. To get a sense of just how “timeless”—according to the CIA itself—such instructions remain, see the abridged list below, courtesy of Business Insider. You will laugh ruefully, then maybe shudder a little as you recognize how much your own workplace, and many others, resemble the kind of dysfunctional mess the OSS meticulously planned during World War II.

Organizations and Conferences

  • Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
  • Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.
  • Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
  • Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

Managers

  • In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers.
  • Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw.
  • To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions.
  • Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
  • Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

Employees

  • Work slowly
  • Work slowly.
  • Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can.
  • Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment. Complain that these things are preventing you from doing your job right.
  • Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skillful worker.

Note: This post originally appeared on our site in December 2015.

Related Content:

The CIA’s Style Manual & Writer’s Guide: 185 Pages of Tips for Writing Like a Spook

The C.I.A.’s “Bestiary of Intelligence Writing” Satirizes Spook Jargon with Maurice Sendak-Style Drawings

How the CIA Secretly Funded Abstract Expressionism During the Cold War

Toni Morrison Lists the 10 Steps That Lead Countries to Fascism (1995)

Image by Angela Radulescu, via Wikimedia Commons

The term fascism gets thrown around a great deal these days, not always with high regard to consistency of meaning. Much like Orwellian, it now seems often to function primarily as a label for whichever political developments the speaker doesn’t like. Even back in the 1940s, Orwell himself took to the Tribune in an attempt to pin down what had already become a “much-abused word.” Half a century later, the question of what fascism actually is and how exactly it works was addressed by another novelist, and one of a seemingly quite different sensibility: Toni Morrison, author of The Bluest Eye and Beloved.

Fascism tends to come along with evocation of Nazi Germany. In her 1995 Charter Day address at Howard University, Morrison, too, brought out the specter of Hitler and his “final solution.” But “let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.” She proceeded to lay out a haunting hypothetical series of such steps as follows:

  1. Construct an internal enemy, as both focus and diversion.
  2. Isolate and demonize that enemy by unleashing and protecting the utterance of overt and coded name-calling and verbal abuse. Employ ad hominem attacks as legitimate charges against that enemy.
  3. Enlist and create sources and distributors of information who are willing to reinforce the demonizing process because it is profitable, because it grants power and because it works.
  4. Palisade all art forms; monitor, discredit or expel those that challenge or destabilize processes of demonization and deification.
  5. Subvert and malign all representatives of and sympathizers with this constructed enemy.
  6. Solicit, from among the enemy, collaborators who agree with and can sanitize the dispossession process.
  7. Pathologize the enemy in scholarly and popular mediums; recycle, for example, scientific racism and the myths of racial superiority in order to naturalize the pathology.
  8. Criminalize the enemy. Then prepare, budget for and rationalize the building of holding arenas for the enemy-especially its males and absolutely its children.
  9. Reward mindlessness and apathy with monumentalized entertainments and with little pleasures, tiny seductions, a few minutes on television, a few lines in the press, a little pseudo-success, the illusion of power and influence, a little fun, a little style, a little consequence.
  10. Maintain, at all costs, silence.

Like any good storyteller, Morrison stokes our imagination while turning us toward an examination of our own condition. Over the past quarter-century, many of the tendencies she describes have arguably become more pronounced in political and media environments around the world. A 21st-century reader may be given particular pause by step number nine. Since the 1990s, and especially in Morrison’s homeland of the United States of America, most entertainments have only grown more monumental, and most pleasures have only shrunk.

Later in her speech, Morrison foresees a time ahead “when our fears have all been serialized, our creativity censured, our ideas ‘market-placed,’ our rights sold, our intelligence sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned; when the theatricality, the entertainment value, the marketing of life is complete.” Few of us here in 2022, whatever our political persuasion, could argue that her predictions were entirely unfounded. Fewer still have a clear answer to the question what to do when we “find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen darkly.”

via Kottke

Related Content:

Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism

The Story of Fascism: Rick Steves’ Documentary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Century

Yale Professor Jason Stanley Identifies 10 Tactics of Fascism: The “Cult of the Leader,” Law & Order, Victimhood and More

Hear Toni Morrison (RIP) Present Her Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech on the Radical Power of Language (1993)

Why Should You Read Toni Morrison’s Beloved? An Animated Video Makes the Case

George Orwell Tries to Identify Who Is Really a “Fascist” and Define the Meaning of This “Much-Abused Word” (1944)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy

russell rules 2

Image by J. F. Horrabin, via Wikimedia Commons

Bertrand Russell saw the history of civilization as being shaped by an unfortunate oscillation between two opposing evils: tyranny and anarchy, each of which contain the seed of the other. The best course for steering clear of either one, Russell maintained, is liberalism.

“The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to escape from this endless oscillation,” writes Russell in A History of Western Philosophy. “The essence of liberalism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irrational dogma [a feature of tyranny], and insuring stability [which anarchy undermines] without involving more restraints than are necessary for the preservation of the community.”

In 1951 Russell published an article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Best Answer to Fanaticism–Liberalism,” with the subtitle: “Its calm search for truth, viewed as dangerous in many places, remains the hope of humanity.” In the article, Russell writes that “Liberalism is not so much a creed as a disposition. It is, indeed, opposed to creeds.” He continues:

But the liberal attitude does not say that you should oppose authority. It says only that you should be free to oppose authority, which is quite a different thing. The essence of the liberal outlook in the intellectual sphere is a belief that unbiased discussion is a useful thing and that men should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments. The opposite view, which is maintained by those who cannot be called liberals, is that the truth is already known, and that to question it is necessarily subversive.

Russell criticizes the radical who would advocate change at any cost. Echoing the philosopher John Locke, who had a profound influence on the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, Russell writes:

The teacher who urges doctrines subversive to existing authority does not, if he is a liberal, advocate the establishment of a new authority even more tyrannical than the old. He advocates certain limits to the exercise of authority, and he wishes these limits to be observed not only when the authority would support a creed with which he disagrees but also when it would support one with which he is in complete agreement. I am, for my part, a believer in democracy, but I do not like a regime which makes belief in democracy compulsory.

Russell concludes the New York Times piece by offering a “new decalogue” with advice on how to live one’s life in the spirit of liberalism. “The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows,” he says:

1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5: Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6: Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7: Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8: Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9: Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Wise words then. Wise words now.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March, 2013.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

Related Content:

Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Interests Gradually Wider and More Impersonal”

Bertrand Russell’s Advice to People Living 1,000 Years in the Future: “Love is Wise, Hatred is Foolish”

Bertrand Russell: The Everyday Benefit of Philosophy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncertainty

Bertrand Russell Authority and the Individual (1948) 

How Martin Luther King, Jr. Wrote His Momentous “I Have a Dream” Speech (1963)

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech ranks as one of the most famous of American speeches. As Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, says in his video above, it’s “arguably the most important and well-known speech of the 20th century.” King’s popular vision of a peaceful, harmonious, multiracial democracy might explain why nine out of ten Americans have a positive attitude toward King now. That polling looks very different by party affiliation. Even so, many more Americans look fondly on King’s memory than supported (or now support) the racial and economic justice for which he fought. The current use of King as a whitewashed martyr figure, Michael Harriot argues, obscures the reality of “a dream yet unfulfilled,” as King once called the U.S.

Even after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize win, only about 37% of Americans approved of his message in 1966 Gallup polling, a number that dropped even lower when he came out against the Vietnam war in 1967. Approval for MLK “only started to shift after his assassination in 1968,” writes Senior Data Scientist Linley Sanders at YouGov.  King’s “Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial may be posthumously remembered as his finest hour by those who weren’t there. For thousands of people who were, his address was also a fiery summation of the major themes up to that point in dozens of speeches and sermons.

“Riddled with big difficult terms and full of rhetorical devices that are intentional and practiced,” Puschak says, the speech eloquently explained “why fully 100 years after… the Emancipation Proclamation,” Black Americans were still politically disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged. It did so through a series of dense allusions to the Emancipation Proclamation, the country’s founding documents, the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and other artifacts of American national identity, in an attempt to “frame civil rights in the larger American mythology so that those who identify with that mythology might incorporate this struggle into that story.”

The American story has justified oppression and fear of the same people fighting for full integration into the national polity during the Civil Rights movement, a problematic irony of which King was hardly unaware. He also drew from traditions older than the U.S. founding — the humanism of Shakespeare and the prophetic voices of the Old Testament, for example. These were indeed practiced maneuvers. (King very much lived down the C he once got in a public speaking class.) But the rousing refrains in his speech’s conclusion — which gave the speech its title and spread its fame around the world — were ad-libbed.

“I started out reading the speech, and I read it down to a point… the audience response was wonderful that day” King later remembered. “And all of a sudden this thing came to me that… I’d used many times before… ‘I have a dream.'” The reference didn’t come out of nowhere, says Clarence Jones, who helped King write the speech’s text just hours before it was delivered. Jones recalled that King’s favorite gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out for the then-familiar (to her) theme:

As he was reading from the text of his prepared remarks, there came a point when Mahalia Jackson, who was sitting on the platform, said, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream.”

Now I have often speculated that she had heard him talk in other places… and make reference to the dream. On June 23, 1963, in Detroit, he had made very express reference to the dream.

When Mahalia shouted to him, I was standing about 50 feet behind him… and I saw it happening in real time. He just took the text of his speech and moved it to the left side of the lectern. … And I said to somebody standing next to me: “These people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.”

Before celebrating a redeemed interpretation of the American dream in his extemporaneous finale, King’s speech condemned the nation’s reality as morally corrupt and illegitimate. He urged restraint among his followers through nonviolent “direct action,” but foresaw worse to come before the country could realize its potential.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

“There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights,” King continued. “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Maybe it’s little wonder many white Americans, hearing these remarks, turned away from King’s vision of racial justice, which required reckoning with “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Ending the “unearned suffering” of Black Americans, King knew, would come at too great a cost to unearned privilege. Indeed, the FBI heard King’s words as a direct threat to the country’s historic power structure. After the “I Have Dream” speech, the Bureau seriously intensified its program to surveil, discredit, and destroy him.

Related Content: 

How Martin Luther King Jr. Got C’s in Public Speaking–Before Becoming a Straight-A Student & a World Class Orator

Martin Luther King Jr. Explains the Importance of Jazz: Hear the Speech He Gave at the First Berlin Jazz Festival (1964)

Imagining the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Debate That Never Happened

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

John Cleese Presents His 5-Step Plan for Shorter, More Productive Meetings (1976)

Let’s face it, meetings are boring at best and at worst, chaotic, volatile, and potentially violent. And let’s also face it: to get through life as functioning adults, we’re going to have to sit through one or two of them — or even one or two of them a week.

Maybe we’re the one who calls the meetings, and maybe they all feel like a waste of time. One solution is to have more informal meetings. This can be especially tempting in the age of work-from-home, when it’s impossible to know how many meeting attendees are wearing pants. Fewer rules can raise the spontaneity quotient, but allowing for the unexpected can invite disaster as well as epiphany.

On the other end of the scale, we have the formality of parliamentary rules of order, such as those introduced by U.S. Army officer Henry Martyn Robert in 1876. Robert, whose father was the first president of Morehouse College, gained a wealth of experience with unproductive meetings as he traveled around the country with the Army. One particular meeting became a defining experience, as one account has it:

While in San Francisco, the local leader of his community didn’t show up for a church meeting. Henry Robert was asked to preside over the town hall (without any prior notice). Let’s just say that on this particular evening in 1876, he did a bad job. An hour into the meeting, people were screaming and the church actually erupted into open conflict.

Sadly, this sort of thing has become almost routine at town halls and school board meetings. But it needn’t be so at the office. Nor, says John Cleese in the brief video above, do meetings need to follow the formality of parliamentary procedure.

Cleese’s rules are simpler even than the simplified Roberts or Rosenberg’s Rules of Order, an even more simplified version of Robert’s Rules. Furthermore, Cleese avoids using words like “Rules” which can be a turn-off in our egalitarian times. Instead, he presents us with a “5-Step Plan” for holding better and shorter meetings.

1. Plan — Clear your mind about the precise objectives of the meeting. Be clear why you need it and list the subjects.
2. Inform — Make sure everyone knows exactly what is being discussed, why, and what you want from the discussion. Anticipate what information and people may be needed and make sure they’re there.
3. Prepare — Prepare the logical sequence items. Prepare the time allocation to each item on the basis of its importance not its urgency.
4. Structure and Control — Take the evidence stage before the interpretation stage and that before the action stage and stop people jumping ahead or going back over ground.
5. Summarize all decision and record them straight away with the name of the person responsible for any action

Easy, right? Well, maybe not so easy in practice, but these steps can, at the very least, illuminate what’s wrong with your meetings, which may currently resemble one of Cleese’s many parodies of business culture. Nobody videophoned it in at the time, but trying to figure out who’s supposed to be doing what can still take up an afternoon. Let Cleese’s five steps bring order to the chaos.

Related Content: 

John Cleese on How “Stupid People Have No Idea How Stupid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dunning-Kruger Effect)

John Cleese Revisits His 20 Years as an Ivy League Professor in His New Book, Professor at Large: The Cornell Years

Monty Python’s John Cleese Creates Ads for the American Philosophical Association

John Cleese’s Very Favorite Comedy Sketches

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Beautifully Illustrated Edition of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, the Bestselling Book by Historian Timothy Snyder

For all its talk of liberty, the US government has practiced dehumanizing authoritarianism and mass murder since its founding. And since the rise of fascism in the early 20th century, it has never been self-evident that it cannot happen here. On the contrary — wrote Yale historian Timothy Snyder before and throughout the Trump presidency — it happened here first, though many would like us to forget. The histories of southern slavocracy and manifest destiny directly informed Hitler’s plans for the German colonization of Europe as much as did Europe’s 20th-century colonization of Africa and Asia.

Snyder is not a scholar of American history, though he has much to say about his country’s present. His work has focused on WWII’s totalitarian regimes and his popular books draw from a “deep knowledge of twentieth-century European history,” write Françoise Mouly and Genevieve Bormes at The New Yorker.

These books include bestsellers like Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and the controversial Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, a book whose arguments, he said, “are clearly not my effort to win a popularity contest.”

Indeed, the problem with rigid conformity to populist ideas became the subject of Snyder’s 2017 bestseller, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, “a slim volume,” Mouly and Bormes note, “which interspersed maxims such as ‘Be kind to our language’ and ‘Defend institutions’ with biographical and historical sketches.” (We posted an abridged version of Snyder’s 20 lessons that year.) On Tyranny became an “instant best-seller… for those who were looking for ways to combat the insidious creep of authoritarianism at home.”

If you’ve paid any attention to the news lately, maybe you’ve noticed that the threat has not receded. Ideas about how to combat anti-democratic movements remain relevant as ever. It’s also important to remember that Snyder’s book dates from a particular moment in time and draws on a particular historical perspective. Contextual details that can get lost in writing come to the fore in images — clothing, cars, the use of color or black and white: these all key us in to the historicity of his observations.

 

“We don’t exist in a vacuum,” says artist Nora Krug, the designer and illustrator of a new, graphic edition of On Tyranny just released this month. “I use a variety of visual styles and techniques to emphasize the fragmentary nature of memory and the emotive effects of historical events.” Krug worked from artifacts she found at flea markets and antique stores, “depositories of our collective consciousness,” as she writes in an introductory note to the new edition.

Krug’s choice of a variety of mediums and creative approaches “allows me to admit,” she says, “that we can only exist in relationship to the past, that everything we think and feel is thought and felt in reference to it, that our future is deeply rooted in our history, and that we will always be active contributors to shaping how the past is viewed and what our future will look like.”

It’s an approach also favored by Snyder, who does not shy away, like many historians, from explicitly making connections between past, present, and possible future events. “It’s easy for historians to say, ‘It’s not our job to write the future,’” he told The New York Times in 2015. “Yes, right. But then whose job is it?” See many more images from the illustrated On Tyranny at The New Yorker and purchase a copy of the book here.

Via Kottke

Related Content:

20 Lessons from the 20th Century About How to Defend Democracy from Authoritarianism, According to Yale Historian Timothy Snyder

The Story of Fascism: Rick Steves’ Documentary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Century

Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hobbes, Locke & Rousseau: An Animated Introduction to Their Political Theories

The phrase “state of nature” doesn’t get much use in philosophy these days, but every political philosopher must grapple with the history of the idea — a foundational conceit of modern Euro-American thought in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These three “contractualist” philosophers, often grouped together in syllabi and selected introductory texts, relied on the notion that humans once existed in an anarchic state predating civil society, and that this state might be re-discoverable in indigenous ways of life in the Americas. In the three School of Life videos here, you can learn the basics about each of these philosophers and their political theories.

Unlike the Biblical garden of Eden, the state of nature was hardly perfect, at least for Hobbes and Locke, who saw government as a necessary mediator for competing self-interests. The kinds of governments they theorized were vastly different from each other — one an absolute monarchy and the other a capitalist republic. But in each theorist’s pseudo-prehistory, early humans gave up their independence by making social contracts for protection and mutual interest. These “contracts,” claimed both Hobbes and Locke, were the origin of governments.

Hobbes was the first major thinker to elaborate a version of this story, and his description of life before government is well-known: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of their painful existence, humans would have sought out a powerful ruler to protect them. They were right to do so, Hobbes believed, because only a king, as he argued in Leviathan, could provide the protection people need. It was perhaps no coincidence that Hobbes worked for a king, his former student, Charles II, restored to the throne after the English Civil War that drove Hobbes to his authoritarian views, supposedly.

Despite his defense of divine power, Hobbes stood accused of atheism and blasphemy for, among other things, writing a secular justification for monarchy that was not based on revelation or the divine right of kings. Likewise, the first part of John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government was a forceful refutation of divine right. But Locke’s ideas of toleration were far more threatening to the state, which is why he published anonymously. In his Second Treatise, he laid out his version of the state of nature and the social contract — ideas drawn in part from travelogues written by early colonial adventurers.

Locke’s theory of government is also a theory of private property — the rightful source of political power, he believed — and who should own it. Decades later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his most salient works, including a book titled The Social Contract, in opposition to the inequality of Hobbesian and Lockean states. Rousseau believed in human perfectibility and claimed that governments imposed a “general will” on individuals, repressing an essentially benevolent state of nature in which resources were shared.

Rousseau’s rejoinder to the myth of vicious savagery gave rise to another: that of the noble savage, an appealing image for the revolutionaries of late-18th century France and later utopian socialists tasked with the difficult project of imagining an alternative to political hierarchy. In social contract theory, the imagined way forward derives from an imagined precolonial past, more “moral fiction” than “historical fact,” as scholar Richard Ashcraft argues. Learn more about the mythical state of nature and the primary theorists of the social contract above.

Related Content: 

Leo Strauss: 15 Political Philosophy Courses Online

Social and Political Philosophy: A Free Online Course 

Introduction to Political Philosophy: A Free Online Course from Yale University 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Chinese Youth Announce That They’re “Lying Flat” and Resisting the Pressures of Modern Life

The “Lying Flat” movement taking hold among young people in China involves doing exactly what it suggests: working little, resting a lot, and cultivating the most minimalist lifestyle possible. Unlike Timothy Leary’s 1960’s mantra, “turn on, tune in, drop out,” lying flat, or tang ping (躺平), takes no stance on a countercultural ethos or the consumption of mind-altering drugs. But it has caused the authorities alarm, even among English-language observers. Consider the Brookings Institute headline, “The ‘lying flat’ movement standing in the way of China’s innovation drive.” Standing in the way of innovation is a cardinal sin of capitalism, one reason the “niche Chinese Gen Z meme” of tang ping, Jane Li writes, “is ringing alarm bells for Beijing.”

The phenomenon began — where else — on social media, when 31-year-old former factory worker Luo Huazhong “drew the curtains and crawled into bed,” Cassady Rosenblum writes at The New York Times. Luo then “posted a picture of himself [in bed] to the Chinese website Baidu along with a message: ‘Lying Flat is Justice.’”

His manifesto (above) claimed the “right to choose a slow lifestyle” by doing little work to get by, reading, gardening, exercising, and, yes, lying supine as often as he liked. To further elaborate, Luo wrote, “lying flat is my sophistic movement,” with a reference to Diogenes the Cynic, the Greek philosopher “said to have lived inside a barrel to criticize the excesses of Athenian aristocrats.”

Diogenes did more than that. He and his followers rejected everything about Athenian society, from work and marriage to the abstract reasoning of Plato. Luo might have turned to a more traditional source for “lying flat” — the Daoist principle of wu-wei, or non-doing. But lying flat is not so much about living in harmony with nature as it is a state of exhaustion, a full-body admission that the promises of capitalism — work hard now, rest hard later — have not and will not materialize. They are phantoms, mirages, precisely the kind of fictions that made Diogenes bark with laughter. The truth, Rosenblum writes, is that for “essential” workers at the bottom all the way up to the “inner sanctums” of Goldman Sachs, “work has become intolerable. Rest is resistance.”

In a work culture that celebrates “996” — 12-hour days, six days a week– rest may be the only form of resistance. Political repression and lack of upward mobility have fostered “an almost monastic outlook” in China, writes Li, “including not getting married, not having children, not having a job, not owning property, and consuming as little as possible.” Since picking up tens of thousands of followers online, the lying flat movement has become the target of a censorship campaign aimed at stopping young Chinese workers from checking out. One government-backed newspaper called the movement “shameful,” and news agency Xinhua unfavorably compared “lying flattists” to front-line medical workers. The original manifesto, Lying Flat groups, and message boards where users posted photos of seals, cats, and themselves lying flat have been taken down.

Zijia Song writes of tang ping as partly a response to a traditional Chinese culture of competitiveness and overwork, but notes that there are similar movements in Japan, Korea, and the U.S., where “Black activists, writers and thinkers are among the clearest voices articulating this spiritual malaise and its solutions,” writes Rosenblum, “perhaps because they’ve borne the brunt of capitalism more than other groups of Americans.” Whatever their national origin, each of these statements defiantly claims the right to rest, posing a threat not only to the Party but to an ideal of human life as endless overwork for shiny trinkets and empty promises, during a global pandemic and climate crisis that have revealed to us like nothing else the need to slow down, rest, and completely reimagine the way we live.

Related Content: 

Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

Brian Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Creative Work: Don’t Get a Job

Will You Really Achieve Happiness If You Finally Win the Rat Race? Don’t Answer the Question Until You’ve Watched Steve Cutts’ New Animation

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.