By Willie Baptist, Charon Hribar, and John Wessel-McCoy
Part one in a six-part series published by The Journal of the University of the Poor
Thinking about the question of mental terrain involves looking at what is already in the hearts and minds of people. Specifically, we are considering the hearts and minds of the (U.S.) American people admitting that 300+ million human beings are not monolithic. Nevertheless, in terms of social movements throughout history, problems are resolved first in people’s thinking, and then in their actions. For example, with slavery people first needed to end mental slavery in order to then end actual slavery. There is a mental battlefield taking place in the six inches between people’s ears, and we need to acknowledge this in order to understand what we’re up against.
The causes, conditions, and consequences of the global capitalist economic crisis of 2007-8 set the stage for a period of deeper questioning and critiques of the political economy of present day society and its corresponding protective ideological and coercive institutions. This questioning, this awareness, of course, takes place first among the emerging leaders of the contending social forces. Herein lies the threatening insight conveyed by the worsening plight and arising fight of the poor and dispossessed class around the globe. Today’s excruciating economic and social conditions are compelling them to enter into desperate struggles for survival. These conditions are also compelling the poor to unite into a powerful social force capable of unsettling the complacency and awakening the social consciousness of the rest of the population who themselves are becoming increasingly insecure economically and restless politically.
History teaches that these changes in the ideology of the masses in which a social conflict is consciously fought out are conditioned by changes in the economy, that is, the mode of production of material life. The changes particularly in a capitalist economy go through ebbs and flows, longer periods of lulls leading to shorter revolutionary periods of leaps in social developments. These corresponding and mutually conditioning aspects of social developments, both the conditions and conflicts, necessarily happen in definite stages of development leading to fundamental change in society. The interacting relationship between this plight, fight, and insight, between social experience and social consciousness generally is a major subject of social science in general, and the science of social psychology in particular. History teaches that although these factors are mutually conditioning, it is primarily the experiences of economic conditions of society that determine the development of social consciousness. In other words, history has confirmed the scientific conclusion that Karl Marx arrived at, that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness.” Mastering this law of development is the only indispensable guide to effective education and training, to effective pedagogics in changing minds for social change.
In summary, the science of social psychology involves the study of the mental terrain, which is primarily determined by actual life experiences. In other words, this science must start with the study of material conditions of life, which in turn frame the study of the mental terrain, which reflects those conditions. This means studying human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and how people’s minds and actions develop and change.
In this six-part series we will argue that thinking about the questions of mental terrain involves looking at what is already in the hearts and minds of people, especially the “mental fortresses”—long-established and deeply embedded values and views, preferences and prejudices. These fortresses are reinforced by the prevailing legal and political institutions of society such as the governmental apparatuses, churches, public education system and media outlets. The mental fortresses and the supporting social institutions serve to defend old ruling ideas and resist the challenge of new revolutionary views and moral values that threaten social change. Before the seeds of new ideas are implanted, the grounds of the old ideas must be plowed up. This happens when actual life experiences or life struggles confront changes in the material conditions of life. Old ideas then fail to explain these conditions and so people begin to question the old ideas and panaceas and seek new ones. This is how the experiences of struggle become a school, making possible the changing of minds. In other words, the art of leadership, including the art of pedagogics, is the art of the possible. One can dream the impossible but cannot do the impossible. Therefore what is possible at each stage of social development must be subject to ongoing and seriously engaged study.
Ongoing and seriously engaged study is particularly important now that under the present era of the “microelectronic revolution” a newly globalized capitalism has moved into a period of systemic economic crises. Creating increasingly excruciating economic conditions that are making for growing global instability and socially and politically explosive times marks this period. All the deeply embedded old ideas and values buttressed by the long established mental fortresses that have functioned to justify the economic status quo are being undermined and questioned. This is setting the stage for an all-out battle against the old and ruling ideas and changing minds.