“You Tell Me It’s the Institution…”

A Classic Study in Institutions

In 1971, a Stanford psychology professor gathered twenty-four undergraduates for an experiment studying the psychology of prisoners and prison guards.  By the end of six days, the “Stanford Prison Experiment” had to be stopped because of the severe abuse and mental disturbances that arose in both the “prisoners” and the “guards.”  Guards became exceedingly cruel, despite not being allowed to physically injure prisoners, but figured out ways to cause suffering and humiliation to the prisoners anyway.  Prisoners, at first rebellious, became frightened and docile, accepting the abuse given by the guards.  But none of the people involved were beforehand found to be prone to this sort of behavior.  All subjects were selected as the most mentally and emotionally stable of the original pool of volunteers, and were assigned randomly to the roles of “prisoner” and “guard.”  The subjects» were acting out the roles and norms that inhere in the institution of prisons.  These were not evil or crazy people.  Rather, the evil came out of placing human beings in a collection of roles and norms – collections called institutions – to which human beings may be ill-suited.

It is typical of American political discussion to reduce political problems to the motives of particular persons in power, usually the person occupying the presidency, but also of various congresspersons.  Any attempt to range beyond such discussion, by identifying the system of class rule in American society, for example, is dismissed as a “conspiracy theory.”  This charge may have originated in the mass media, where it is often used to deter sensible debate (see this discussion here, for an example, where a journalist can’t understand that he’s not being accused of being a CIA agent).  While much political discourse in American politics has been taken over to the discussion of conspiracy theories, such as “9/11 was an inside job” theory, we are not discussing conspiracies here.  A conspiracy is a group of people acting in secret concert to achieve an end that is outside the norms of society (plenty of groups operate in secrecy, after all, but are part of the normal business of society, unfortunately).  Neither shall we play the political game of assigning all of our hopes and dreams to one powerful or influential person, and all of our nightmares to another.  We here at Philosophyhelmet are rational persons.  To that end, we seek problems and solutions to those problems not in persons but in the social institutions in which those persons act, and by which they are conditioned.

Social Institutions

Institutions are the regular patterns of interpersonal behavior and relations (and the built environment and infrastructure that house the interacting persons, and also shape their interactions).  Institutions are what allow us to form reasonable expectations about how other people acting within the same institution will behave, and what allow them to have similar expectations and predictions about us.  All of this allows us to cooperate in complex ways – kind of; not all institutions work very well.  Institutions outlive the actual, particular persons comprising them by the transmission of rules regarding behavior and interaction to newcomers to the institution.  Institutions reproduce themselves across generations of a single society in this way.  What counts as an institution may be as specific and official as the Presidency of the United States, or as broad as “marriage,” “capitalism,” “the state,” or “the nation.”

Rules are imposed by taking advantage of our motivations, either extrinsic or intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivations are motivations originating from outside of the individual, and usually take the form of rewards and punishments.  But institutions also take advantage of our intrinsic motivations, motivations that originate from within ourselves, from our own values and beliefs.  Marriage is an institution that relies on the intrinsic motivation to express our feelings to our partners by the cultivation of certain beliefs about romantic practices.  Wage-labor, on the other hand, relies on the extrinsic motivation of money to induce people to work at jobs that would be otherwise avoided.  But wage-labor is also assisted by intrinsic motivations that we usually think of as just good sense.  For example, the “work ethic” has persuaded most Americans to work long hours despite the great increase in productivity that would allow them to live well while working far fewer hours.  Meanwhile economic myths have caused people to eschew labor unions in large numbers (leading to stagnation in real wage growth), take on unsustainable debt in expectation of endless prosperity (leading to debt peonage), and to otherwise subordinate their interests to those of employers and creditors.

Social institutions are not “inanimate.”»   We are concerned with institutions precisely because the particular construction of an institution can have an effect on the way in which people behave.  Not only are institutions themselves composed of consistent behaviors, but institutions result in the overall alteration of human behavior in general.  For example, Marx contended that the growing prevalence of the market as a dominant institution in society resulted in the displacement of the traditional values of the society by commercial values.  Institutions transform each other over time by the conflict and complement of each institution’s norms to those of other institutions, and by the general transformation of the people within those institutions.

We can say that individuals are conditioned – given tendencies to act or think in a certain way – by the institutions in which they act.  We may experience ourselves as just who we are, but upon reflection we all know that our behaviors are determined by physical forces beyond our control.  Our experiences acting within institutions structures our expectations of behavior not just by other institutional actors, but people generally.  For example, an amusing discovery of social psychology is that students in college studying business or economics are less honest than most people, and expect other people to be less honest.  Perhaps business and economics studies attract persons who are naturally dishonest, but given the apparent pliability of the human mind, I doubt it.  This is probably a result of the institutional ideology – of the presumed selfishness of human beings – of the dominant business and economics profession.

Framing Problems in Terms of Institutions

Thus we can develop a useful conceptual structure for understanding the problems that confront us.  For example, Oakland and Bay Area Rapid Transit police gunned down another unarmed person and then lied, just a year after shooting unarmed Oscar Grant in the back of the head and then lying about it, despite being caught on camera.  We could chalk this up to “a few bad apples,” but then we consider all the other unarmed persons, mostly but not always African-American, killed for no good reason, and whose police murderers go unpunished.  We consider the police riots that occur during major international demonstrations, for example recently during the G20 meeting in Toronto, where police cavalry suddenly and without cause almost ran down a large number of people.  We consider the unholy number of “police brutality” videos on Youtube.  We consider police officers in schools tasering six-year olds.  And on and on.

Eventually we should conclude that the problem is not merely the individuals who become police officers.  There is just something wrong with “the police” in itself – there is something wrong with organizing people in such-and-such a way, with such-and-such a relation to society.  The problem is with the institution, not the people in the institution.  The people in the institution are merely acting out the roles and positions, rules and norms that are provided to them.  That’s not to say that there aren’t messed up people who become police officers.  And that’s not to say that there are not police officers who become messed up as a result of being a police officer – because they bear a certain institutional relationship to the rest of us.  Whatever the case, there’s a lot of getting messed up; you’d have to be to think that the things I’ve described above are remotely acceptable.  The solution is to alter the institution of the police.  Punish the guilty, to be sure, but only changing the institution will bring about lasting good outcomes.  An institution must be changed so that, first, its norms reflect the democratic norms that we seek in our institutions.  Second, that the institution successfully reproduces itself in the way that we want it to – that it does not become what we did not intend.  Third, the institution reliably produces the outcomes that we want to achieve.

The source of these institutional outcomes may be the interaction of the institutional norms with “human nature.”  Our institutions are not, after all, designed to produce bad outcomes by bad means.  But institutions do degenerate to produce bad norms and outcomes in regular and predictable ways.  People given absolute power over others develop a predictably bad relationship, as in the Stanford Prison Experiment.  One possibility for this predictability in institutional outcomes is that human beings are a certain way, given in our biology, and that human constitution is incompatible with certain ways of organizing institutions.  But I shall merely contend that we should focus on establishing free institutions, not trying to create institutions to accord with a nebulous notion of human nature.

But institutions may not change or die easily.  European feudal institutions like royalty, aristocracy, and established churches have lived on well beyond whatever purpose they once served.  We can call institutions that reproduce themselves beyond our need or even tolerance for them, pathological institutions.  The world is currently suffocating underneath a mountain of entrenched institutions whose particular beneficiaries would prefer to continue to reap the rewards of their institutional position rather than have a hand in crafting a society of free institutions.

“You Better Free Your Mind Instead”

Our institutions are mostly foisted upon us by the circumstances of history, but sometimes peoples may have the opportunity to create institutions from whole cloth.  Perhaps I have yet to give you, the reader, good reasons for believing that freedom ought to be the central principle of our social institutions.  But we needn’t quibble too much, for all the good things that people want come out of the equality of effective freedom – justice, democracy, tolerance, personal development, all that good stuff.

Despite what the Beatles claim» , living as a free person is not a choice that you can make as you like.  No matter what you do, you carry institutions around with in the very actions you perform.  Institutions are what comprise the patterns of our lives, and it’s the institutions that determine whether individuals have relationships that can be described as “free”.  Cause and effect are the reverse of what the Beatles sang – if you want to free your mind, you better change the institutions.

The social institutions of a free society are institutions that maintain the greatest equal liberty of persons in all spheres of life.  In undertaking collective tasks, this liberty is expressed as democratic equality, acted out by optimally deliberative interactions of the institutional actors.  That is, people cooperate as much as possible through reason-giving discussion instead of rewards and punishments.  Democratic institutions are also constructed so as to reproduce themselves as democratic institutions.  In other words, the roles and norms that comprise the institutions not only are themselves democratic, but also aim towards the continuation of its democratic roles and norms to the indefinite future.  Not only that, however, but institutions in a free society become themselves objects of human will – institutions become subject to transformation by the very people who live in them, within the constraints of democratic equality.  When we shape our institutions, rather than are shaped by them, we will actually have freed our minds.

I should note that the scientific nature of the experiment is disputed, not the least because the experiment spiraled out of control by its very nature, but also because Zimbardo may have primed the subjects’ expectations in the first place.  The BBC replicated the experiment several years ago as a television program and came out with somewhat different results, including a prison riot.Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5
Conservative economist and civil libertarian Paul Craig Roberts made such a claim in a recent Counterpunch article.  However, if institutions are not causally efficacious, if they have no effect, then why discuss their existence at all?Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5
If you didn’t know, the title of this article is from the Beatles’ song, “Revolution,” in which they counsel reactionary garbage like “You tell me it’s the institution/Well you know/You better free your mind instead.”  Great song, stupid ideas.Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5

3 thoughts on ““You Tell Me It’s the Institution…”

  1. Pingback: This is What Democracy Looks Like: the Crowd | Philosophyhelmet

  2. Pingback: Institutional Analysis Versus Conspiracy Theory | Philosophyhelmet

  3. Pingback: Institutional Analysis Versus Conspiracy Theory | Democracy in Principle

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