Clown World Chronicles: What Is ‘Learned Helplessness’?

Of all the psychological tricks that the ruling class uses against us, instigating learned helplessness might be the nastiest. Learned helplessness, as the name suggests, is a particularly abject form of conditioned apathy. In Clown World, it’s everywhere.

The concept of learned helplessness comes from a series of studies performed with dogs by psychologist Martin Seligman. The dogs were placed into boxes and given electric shocks until they learned that there was no escape from the suffering. At this point, a strange apathy came over them. These animals later refused to escape the shocks even when an obvious opportunity was presented to do so.

The dogs that refused to escape electric shocks were said to be suffering from “learned helplessness”. This was a conditioned state of extreme passivity. Further experiments demonstrated that most people will become depressed if exposed to extended suffering without being able to do anything about it.

Learned helplessness is also seen in elephant training. A young elephant can be tethered by a chain or strong rope, and soon learns that it cannot escape its bonds. Eventually it becomes passive. An elephant can remain so conditioned for the rest of its life, so that even as an adult it can be tethered by a thin cord and will not try to escape, despite being easily strong enough to break free.

When it comes to learned helplessness, humans behave in the same manner as other mammals. Given repeated adverse stimuli with no chance of escape, the human animal will also “give up”. This occurs for the same neurophysiological reasons as in other animals, namely a kind of nervous exhaustion. Learned helplessness feels a lot like depression, and it arises for similar reasons.

Learned helplessness explains, to a major extent, why we don’t resist the rulers of Clown World.

Most people are conditioned into being helpless through schooling. School teaches us – and is designed to teach us – that defying authority can only lead to suffering. Anyone who stands out from the crowd is ruthlessly abused back into position, either through physical or social violence. This is why depressive apathy is so common among high school students.

The purpose of all this abuse is to induce a state of learned helplessness.

School graduates can then be passed over, like broken-in slaves, to those who are effectively their masters. Sometimes these are military officers, who can then command the graduates to charge machinegun emplacements, safe in the knowledge that they would never dare to disobey. More usually, the new masters are employers, who can work the graduate all day for a wage on which they can’t raise a family, likewise safe in the knowledge that no protest will be forthcoming.

The leadup to the Iraq War intensified the widespread sense of helplessness in Clown World. The millions of people protesting the war had no influence on its course. We learned that, no matter how earnestly we expressed our lack of consent for a war being waged in our name, our supposedly democratic representatives would simply do as they liked. Protests and petitions didn’t matter and there was nothing any of us could do about it.

This state of advanced apathy endured for some years. In the end it seemed like war was going to be part of everyday life from then on. We simply got used to daily reports of drone strikes hitting weddings, schools and hospitals, and of Islamic terror attacks.

The rise of Barack Obama brought hope back. Obama campaigned on a ‘Hope and Change’ platform and there was no doubt that a black man, of all things, would mean a definitive change from the status quo. His 2009 Nobel Peace Prize win reinforced these sentiments, leading the whole world to feel that the dark days of George W Bush’s psychotic indifference to human suffering were over.

However, Obama turned out to be just as much part of the Establishment as everyone else. He surrounded himself with the same people as had surrounded the previous Presidents, and continued along an equally megalomaniacal path. With the destruction of Libya and murder of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Clown World realised that not even voting the Republicans out of power was going to change anything.

The realisation that Obama was actually another bad guy coincided with the realisation that the Global Financial Crisis had condemned a whole generation to be poorer than their parents were. For so many in that generation to put their hopes in a messiah-like figure, only to have them dashed like that, caused many to simply give up in despair. And that was all part of the plan.

When it comes to the subject of inducing a state of learned helplessness, we almost move out of the realm of psychology and into the realm of black magic. It is by so inducing a state of helplessness that the ruling class manufactures acquiescence. With their psychological hold then established over the population, the ruling class can do as it likes without interference.

This is partly the reason for the ongoing refusal to legalise cannabis. The point of cannabis prohibition – and many similar arbitrary and cruel laws – is to show who’s in charge. Putting someone in a cage for an act that doesn’t harm anyone might be immoral and it might increase the net suffering in the world, but that’s the whole point – they’ll learn to obey next time if they know what’s good for them.

Overcoming learned helplessness is mostly a matter of understanding that we do, in fact, have the agency to prevent our own suffering. This requires that we recondition ourselves to become more optimistic. Although this is a process that may take some time, the key aspects are threefold. One must learn to see problems as external to oneself, as temporary and as specific to the situation one is in at the moment.


This article is an excerpt from Clown World Chronicles, a book about the insanity of life in the post-Industrial West. This is being compiled by Vince McLeod for an expected release in January 2021.


If you enjoyed reading this essay, you can get a compilation of the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2019 from Amazon for Kindle or Amazon for CreateSpace (for international readers), or TradeMe (for Kiwis). A compilation of the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2018 and the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2017 are also available.


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