The Hidden Injuries of Powerlessness

Alienation and dissociation reinforce each other to create a cycle of social powerlessness. In The Hidden Injuries of Class, a worker ponders this dilemma.

“The more a person is on the receiving end of orders, the more the person’s got to think he or she is really somewhere else in order to keep up self-respect. And yet it’s at work that you’re supposed to ‘make something’ of yourself, so if you’re not really there, how are you going to make something of yourself?”

Capitalism alienates the majority from control over the decision-making process, putting most people “on the receiving end of orders.” Dissociation is a psychological defense against feeling powerless; the worker goes “somewhere else” to preserve self-respect. However, dissociation keeps the worker in his alienated condition, “so if you’re not really there, how are you going to make something of yourself?”

Alienation and dissociation re-enforce each other in countless ways. Workers who must function like cogs in the social machine have dissociated relationships with the other cogs. There is no direct and conscious sharing of the creative, productive process. Instead of relating to each other as fellow producers, directly exchanging what they want and need, workers relate to each other as dissociated consumers, you pay my boss for what I made and I pay your boss for what you made.

Consequently, despite living, working, commuting, and shopping together, most people feel estranged from one another. We talk about what we can’t control (sports, the weather) to avoid discussing what we aren’t allowed to control (our work, the world).

Capitalism alienates humanity from the environment by dissociating the past and the future from the present. Only the sale is important. Every year, tons of industrial chemicals, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals enter the market as commodities with no consideration for what happens after they are sold. Once used, these products are thrown away, washed away and excreted from human and animal bodies, entering rivers, streams and lakes, returning to us in the form of contaminated food and water.

Alienation and dissociation reach their pinnacle in war. When people feel helpless to stop the madness, they must dissociate from the brutality or go mad themselves.

People who feel powerless have been compared to some laboratory animals who resign themselves to unavoidable electrical shocks. Even after their cage doors are opened, they do not escape. This phenomenon is called “learned helplessness,” where the familiar, no matter how terrible, seems preferable to the unknown, no matter how promising.

People without hope do feel powerlessness. However, animals have limited ways to extract themselves from harmful situations, unlike human beings who are creative and resourceful problem-solvers. And while individuals have a limited ability to solve problems, there is virtually no limit to the problems that people can solve together.

To maintain their stranglehold over society, the people-in-power use divide-and-rule strategies that keep the majority feeling isolated, fearful, and powerless. Nevertheless, the criminal behavior of the ruling class compels ordinary people to organize in self-defense.

Cooperation counters the downward cycle of alienation and dissociation. Cooperation elicits feelings of strength and hope, so people work harder to find solutions, thereby increasing their chances of success. Cooperation and hope re-enforce each other to increase social power.

Whether we feel hopeless or hopeful, powerless or powerful depends on whether we work alone or together. Alone, we can’t protect ourselves from environmental pollution, corrupt corporations, oppressive institutions and war-mongering governments. As an organized force, we have the power to change the world.

Dr. Susan Rosenthal has been practicing medicine for more than 30 years and has written many articles on the relationship between health and human relationships. She is also the author of Striking Flint: Genora (Johnson) Dollinger Remembers the 1936-1937 General Motors Sit-Down Strike (1996) and Market Madness and Mental Illness: The Crisis in Mental Health Care (1999) and Power and Powerlessness. She is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. She can be reached through her web site or by email at: