Friday, 9 April 2021

Not So Great Expectations

Recently I was struck by a quote from geographer Danny Dorling on the fact that, in 2020, the UK recorded the highest number of excess deaths since the Second World War.

“All these excess death calculations that are being made, we’re comparing ourselves in 2020 with five truly awful years,” said Dorling last month, “whereas other countries are comparing themselves with the best years they’ve ever had.”

Excess deaths are defined as deaths above what could be expected based on an average of the previous five years. Because of Covid-19, there were nearly 85,000 excess deaths last year. In the first three months of 2021, there were over 32,000 excess deaths.

However, the problem in using excess deaths in the UK as an indicator of the unprecedented nature of the Covid pandemic is that, because of the political choice of austerity, between 2014 and 2019 – the previous five years – excess deaths were already rising. There were, for example, over 32,000 excess deaths in 2015, over 20,000 excess deaths in 2016 and 2017 and over 22,000 excess deaths in 2018.

In other words, because of the preceding “five truly awful years”, the huge rise in excess deaths in 2020 and 2021 was less pronounced than it would otherwise have been. In yet other words, the true extent of the present human catastrophe overseen Conservatives has been masked by the previous human catastrophe overseen by the Conservatives. You might call that ironic.

Lifting the veil

This can happen because a veil of denialism still surrounds austerity. With Covid, the bare facts are generally accepted even if the reasons for the enormous death toll – at the time of writing the sixth highest in the world – are blotted out. Austerity does not even have that chink of light. A cheer-leading consensus has blinded a rational acceptance of its effects. The entire political class was in cahoots – though austerity was carried out by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, the pre-Corbyn Labour opposition voiced its support from the sidelines.

Austerity was largely implemented through swingeing cuts to benefits and central government funding to local authorities. A combination of the popular and the invisible.

The ground for the former was prepared by a massive, and effective, propaganda campaign, portraying benefit claimants – especially allegedly sick claimants – as scroungers living off the naive generosity of the taxpayer. In addition to direct cuts in benefits – the benefits cap and freeze – there was a huge increase in the sanctioning (the withdrawal of all financial support) of claimants. Over a million sanctions were imposed in 2013, a 345% rise on their 2001-2008 average (they had been introduced by the previous Labour government).

Local authorities, however, bore the brunt. The central government grant to local councils was cut by 49%. Given that most local government spending (around 60%) goes on social care, this is where the axe fell, with palpable consequences for mortality rates. In 2014, there were a million fewer social care visits to the elderly than there had been five years before.

There is nothing painless about cuts; they don’t just eradicate ‘waste’. “ … the more cuts there have been to public health, social services and benefits – particularly for people in old age – the more earlier deaths there have been in the UK,” says Dorling. “Cuts that prevent visits by social workers to elderly people reduce their chances of being found after a fall. Cuts that make it harder to rehouse someone who is currently in a hospital bed back into the community result in hospital beds not being available for others.”

All this was compounded by what was happening to the NHS. Though formally “protected” from austerity, between 2010 and 2015 health spending rose by an average of 0.5% compared to an annual uprating of 4% since 1950.

In 2017, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that the post-2010 squeeze on public finances was linked to around 120,000 excess deaths in England alone, with the over 60s and care home residents most affected. The researchers estimated there were more than 45,000 excess deaths between 2010 and 2014 and over 152,000 people could die between 2015 and 2020 unless the “mortality gap” was closed by more funding.

Mind the gap

But such was the size of the mortality gap, it was starting to eat into life expectancy. In autumn 2017, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revised its predictions for life expectancy for both women and men, cutting the estimate for both by about a year – an estimate that had been made just two years previously. Life expectancy was flatlining. After rising consistently for decade after decade, it was now barely creeping upwards. During David Cameron’s time in office it rose by a month a year for men and by just two weeks for women. By contrast, in the 1940s and early 1950s life expectancy rose by a year every three years and accelerated again in the 1970s and ‘80s.

This means, explains Dorling, “that 110 years of improving life expectancy in the UK are now officially over. The implications for this are huge and the reasons the statistics were revised is a tragedy on an enormous scale.”

The evidence kept accruing. In February 2020, the Marmot Review, an investigation into health inequalities originally commissioned by the Brown government, found that overall life expectancy had failed to increase for a decade and had actually declined for the poorest 10% of women. The author, Michael Marmot, blamed austerity for taking a “significant toll” on the nation’s health and being responsible for “flatlining life expectancy”.

And the pension industry believes life expectancy is actually falling. In 2018, The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries cut adult life expectancy by six months in what it said was “a trend as opposed to a blip”. In March 2019, Continuous Mortality Investigation, a company owned by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, found that the life expectancy of men and women aged 65 had fallen by five months from 2017. According to one group of analysts, the main reason was that deaths in 2018 were “particularly high”.

However, there is a silver lining. In 2017 the Financial Times had reported that the “sharp slowdown” in life expectancy could wipe £310 billion from the deficits of large companies’ final salary pension schemes.

In an irony typical of this economic system, deteriorating public health is actually good for the financial health of big firms.

At present, official life expectancy is stalling, as opposed to actually declining as it is in the US, but further revisions are not unlikely.

For whom the bell tolls

Changes in life expectancy such as these are momentous. Besides the human cost, they signal that something very significant is happening to an economic and social system. The collapse of the Soviet Union was preceded by rising mortality and declining health spending. In 1976, a French demographer – widely ignored at the time – correctly predicted the demise of the Soviet system on the basis of rising infant mortality figures. Coincidentally, since 2014 infant mortality has started increasing in England.

But despite our free institutions and allegedly adversarial media, stagnating life expectancy here and now has created nothing more than a faint murmur. The ONS’s downward revisions referred to earlier were buried in an appendix to a press release. The BBC can claim that Covid “has undone the progress made in the last decade or so” and ignore the pre-Covid rise in excess deaths (that its own graphs show!). Matt Hancock can pontificate about adding five years to life expectancy through healthy eating.

Nothing is being suppressed. All the information contradicting official complacency can be readily collated (I just have). But in the absence of mass exposure and repetition – the secret of news becoming received wisdom the truth about austerity and life expectancy reaches, at best, a minority who want to hear about it.

And far from the damage being repaired, austerity – as enshrined by Rishi Sunak’s last budget – will continue. With the evidence about the effect of austerity in 2010s now clear, the government is responding by upping the dose.

Meanwhile, the land of make believe strides on, brimming with absolutely unwarranted self-confidence.















Wednesday, 24 March 2021

The Banality of Obedience


In trying to understand the Milgram obedience experiments, the most important thing, in my opinion, is not to be dazzled by what they purport to show. The surface narrative – still loyally recounted in popular renditions every time the name Stanley Milgram is uttered – is that ordinary people can effortlessly be transformed into heartless torturers, that beneath our civilised veneers lurk potential concentration camp guards. In the next breath there are, invariably, earnest warnings about the Nazis and the Holocaust.

In fact, the truth is simultaneously more mundane and more disturbing.

What Milgram actually said was that we easily allow ourselves to be turned into agents for those above us in hierarchical organisations, doing what they want rather than what we ourselves would do. “Relationship,” as he put it, “overwhelms content”. That content can involve inflicting pain and death but – and this is rarely remarked upon – it can also involve content that is neutral, even benevolent or merely one link in a chain whose ultimate purpose is destructive or damaging. The specific action might appear innocuous but when placed together with other innocent looking parts of the whole, the ‘end product’ might be immensely harmful.

The crucial element is the relationship. Clearly the Milgram experiment (s) would not have achieved lasting fame had he asked volunteers if they wouldn’t mind passing a stapler (‘Psychology professor reveals we are all stapler-passers under the surface!’). Though it would have been interesting to know if anyone would have refused.

Commonplace obedience

This little noticed element in obedience to authority in fact produced the highest obedience rates. When Milgram’s subjects were merely asked to read out the word-pairs while a confederate of the experimenter actually pressed the buzzer supposedly inflicting electric shocks (the experiment was presented as a test of the effect of punishment on memory), obedience levels went through the roof. They registered 92.5%, the highest in the entire series of experiments.

Most replications of Milgram in the 1960s and ‘70s produced broadly similar results. One study didn’t however. That was by Wesley Kilham and Leon Mann in Australia in 1974. They reported obedience as low as 40% (and 16% for female subjects). This was the “notable exception” alluded to in Part One. However, when Kilham’s and Mann’s subjects became mere ‘runners’ – transmitting the experimenter’s instructions to a person playing the role of the teacher/shocker – disobedience was transformed into obedience. It hit 68% for men and 40% for women.

This is how contemporary obedience researchers, Dariusz Doliński and Tomasz Grzyb, describe this variation of the Kilham and Mann study:

As it turned out, people whose task was simply to transmit successive instructions to press the generator’s switches were even more pliant than those who – as in Milgram’s original experiment – were supposed to be the direct (physical) culprits responsible for causing physical pain to another person. This demonstrates that the role of being a cog in the bureaucratic machine facilitates the sense that one is neither the instigator of anything evil, nor directly causing any harm. As can be seen, in this particular type of situation, it is particularly easy to generate submissiveness and obedience. (From The Social Psychology of Obedience Towards Authority, pp 39-40)

The “particular type of situation” which lends itself so effortlessly to kindling submissiveness and obedience, is as emblematic of the corporation – which is in essence a private bureaucracy – as it is of the state machine. This is difficult to see in part because of the vehement ideology of freedom that accompanies corporate capitalism. But it is also obscured by the image, assiduously developed over the last 40 years or so, of the individual as a self-interested aggrandizer, always on the look-out for the best online deals, demanding faultless service, perpetually seeking fitness and attractiveness, constantly honing their CV. We may be irredeemably selfish but under a ‘free market’ system, we answer only to ourselves and our own desires.

However this was never true and still isn’t. As noted by the mid-20th century economic historian Karl Polanyi, if we were purely self-interested negotiators always seeking the highest price for selling the commodity of our own labour, as theoretically we should do under the ‘laws’ of the market economy, we would be “almost continually on strike”. This obviously isn’t the case and is not solely due to coercion and the power of the law and the police. The added ingredient is the power of obedience.

The vast majority of us willingly enter – or we think we do – Milgram’s agentic state, where we temporarily become instruments for the wishes of people above us in the hierarchy (as they are instruments for people above them). The crucial element, as Milgram observed, is the sense of voluntary choice. This creates a sense of obligation, allied to a feeling of being absolved of any real responsibility, which is a powerful and dangerous brew.

The element of our economy which is always stressed by the media and the powerful is our freedom as consumers. But this, as the book elaborates, is at best half the story. We also spend much of our lives within – or bound to – hierarchical organisations which operate under the expectation of unquestioning obedience.  

As above, so below

It would be a mistake to think this cast of mind is restricted to the lower half of the economy, though it may be more explicit there. Most of us are agents for others. Since the 1970s, for example, ‘the agency theory of the firm’ has grown in popularity. This asserts that a company’s senior managers (chief exec, head of finance etc., often on salaries which place them in the 0.01%) are mere ‘agents’ of its ‘principals’, the shareholders, and should be expected to do their bidding. Whether these managers are in fact genuine agents for the company’s owners is open to question. At the higher echelons of the economy, people often have the power and wealth to pursue their own interests. But what is interesting is that they’re expected to be٭.

If anything obedience has grown in intensity since Milgram’s time, though not in the way that might be first thought. It occupies an unrecognised, though essential, space in the economy. Thanks to burgeoning information technology, ‘scientific management’ can control and keep tabs on employees’ behaviour in ways never dreamed of by its 20th century pioneers. In efforts to increase productivity and minimize ‘loafing’, workers are regularly spied on and tracked by their own smartphones, with data compiled about their activities. Online wanderings are subject to screen capture and keystroke monitoring.  In some cases, a worker’s every action is planned out by headsets or hand-held devices, with punishment for deviation.

As one writer observes, this is not just about maximising profitability but “a vision of obedience and acquiescence”.

Gratefully oppressed

What makes these developments especially sinister is that they are accompanied by a powerful feeling that, beyond extreme infractions, this is the way things should be. In a market economy, where we freely choose which little dictatorship to rent ourselves out to, it is only natural that we obey the instructions of superiors.

In The Social Psychology of Obedience Towards Authority, Doliński and Grzyb give numerous examples of employees, or people assuming the role of employees in psychological experiments, obeying the instructions of superiors to carry out ethically dubious actions. For instance, racially selecting new employees or marketing an unsafe drug. Interestingly, the crucial factor does not seem to be an inherent desire to maximise profits, but fulfilling the wishes of senior figures in the organization of which these ‘employees’ are a part.

In my opinion, this is a form of obedience unique to the corporate capitalism societies we inhabit. There is an often fervent identification with the interests and aims of employers but one that can be seamlessly transferred to a competitor. This is serial obedience – in contrast to older types of obedience, around a nation or a religion for example, which tend to be quite fixed.

This feeling of habitual obedience is stiffened by a pervasive aura of disposability – the fear that if we don’t live up to expectations there is always someone else, maybe a robot, who can replace us. In this mindset, there is nothing wrong with obedience. Quite the opposite, it is questioning obedience that is pathological.

Evolution’s children

The natural objection to this thesis is that obedience is not imposed on us, but evident throughout history – so much so that it might be thought of as part of human nature.  In The Disobedient Society I refute Milgram’s contention (which echoes historical giants like Darwin) that obedience is an “evolutionary adaptation”. Actually, the evidence suggests that early humanity was able to knowingly flit between hierarchical and egalitarian social relations. Features such elite rule, social ranking or territoriality might be put into effect at certain times of the year and then dissolved. This indicates an element of choice in obedience which debars it from being a genetic flaw, or depending on your view, an innate advantage.

I refer also to Murray Bookchin’s distinction between first and second nature. Evolution, in the form of first nature, endows humans with the capacity to develop extra-biological tools and to consciously intervene in the natural world through a sophisticated collective organisation. However, the nature of this collective organisation is not determined by first nature. It lies in the realm of second nature – the domain of experimentation which can take many forms and is not governed by the ‘laws’ of natural selection.

The belief that obedience is immovable really relies on a different contention, however. That with the fragmentation of tasks within the complex organisations of the modern world, a degree of obedience is essential. We can never return to the simple freedom of earlier stages of human development, where a person might undertake an action and see it through to completion without the input of others. In short, if we want civilisation, we have to have obedience.

I don’t believe, however, that obedience is synonymous with the division of labour. Rather it is a kind of reflex, an unthinking giving away of authority and ethical responsibility to others. Obedience has a habitual character – it is a form of behaviour it is easy to slip into without noticing.

But the habit can be broken, just as a person who is lightly dozing can be jolted into wakefulness. Despite its tenacious hold, the origins of obedience are not evolutionary. And disobedience, does not, in spite of its reputation, repudiate complex organisation and discipline. Murray Bookchin coined the phrase “episodic sovereignty” – in reference to the Indian Crow societies of North America – to indicate how the yielding of individual initiative can be temporary and limited to rational and well-defined ends. Permanent institutions based on the expectation of command and obedience are not inevitable.

Basic disobedience

Not inevitable, but certainly well-entrenched, however.  I would suggest that if the grip of obedience is to be loosened, radical steps need to be taken. One is a basic income set at a level that a person can live well on without the need to become an “agent” for the hierarchical organisations that pepper and essentially control society. This would instil a sense of confidence and security, a willingness to breach conformist norms and the self-assurance to resist the demands of ‘the economy’. The cowed and malleable workforce of today would be transcended and more genuine forms of democracy might follow.

Secondly the perpetual motion machine of capitalism needs to be halted. At its molecular level capitalism entails the re-investment of profits which leads (usually) to more profits which have to be reinvested again, and so on ad infinitum. This leads to an irresistible imperative to meet existing consumer demand, and create new needs to satisfy this ever-growing “wall of money”. Thus the signature institutions of capitalist society embody obedience – hierarchical organisation with employees obeying precise instructions from above – as simply the most efficient means to achieve the task in hand. If society is ever to advance beyond command and obedience, this background fixation needs to change.

I am not suggesting that obedience did not exist before capitalism or that it may not infuse the kind of society that will exist after capitalism. But Milgram’s insistence on the essentially voluntary nature of obedience makes him, sixty years after his original obedience experiments, presciently relevant.


٭ The problem of a corporation’s executives not actually being genuine agents for its owners was thought to have been circumvented by paying them partly in stock options. This, it was believed, would align their interests with those of the shareholders, in that both would want a high share price. However this ‘solution’ also managed to subvert a core principle of the market economy. Theoretically, a company share price should reflect whether investors think it will make healthy profits – and thus pay healthy dividends – in the future.  However, paying executives partly in stock options encouraged the practice of share buy backs, whereby a company buys its own shares to jack up the overall price. This practice was legalised in Britain in 1981 and in the US the following year. Share buys backs are now a huge ‘industry’, ironically diverting funds which may have gone into actual industry.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Obedient Subjects? The disputed and misunderstood legacy of Stanley Milgram

 In 2019, I published a book called The Disobedient Society in which I argued that, contrary to our protestations of our personal freedom, obedience still plays a dominant role in our societies. Referring back to Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments of the early 1960s – which he subsequently interpreted as demonstrating the ease with which we become “agents” for the wishes of authority figures – I highlighted that the very fact that we perceive our following of orders as voluntary, exemplified by the employment contract, serves to camouflage which is really going on.

Six decades on, controversy still swirls around what Milgram did or didn’t discover in New Haven in 1961. So I thought it would be useful to elaborate what I think of these controversies and how Milgram still informs the book’s central idea. In a very astute review of the book one writer, for example, asserts that Milgram’s findings, blighted by revelations of how participants were unduly pressured into going along the experimenter’s instructions, must now be considered mere metaphors for obedience.

Electric Dreams

To recap, the Milgram’s experiment (s) consisted of instructing participants to give electric shocks via a machine to a – usually hidden – stranger, with the proviso that they were told they could leave at any point. However, the shocks weren’t real. The machine went up to 450 volts, enough to conceivably kill the victim, but it was an elaborately designed fake – no-one was being shocked at all. The entire set-up was to ascertain how far participants would go ‘under orders’.

Milgram – through the experiment he oversaw – has been plausibly accused of haranguing some participants to obey and going on ‘shocking’ the victim. If participants hesitated or expressed doubts at any stage they were to be encouraged to continue with phrases like “the experiment requires that you continue” or “you have no other choice, you must go on”. However, these lines were supposed to be used only once – if the participant still refused to play ball, the experiment was halted and they were labelled “disobedient”.

However, recordings of some of the Milgram sessions suggest that the experimenter (not Milgram but an employee, an ‘agent’ of Milgram you might say) went further than he should have, continually pressing participants to continue, “railroading” them according to Gina Perry’s 2012 book Behind the Shock Machine.

Milgram has also been accused of not telling all participants afterwards that the shocks were fake and in one study of arranging for friends, rather than strangers, to play the roles of ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’.

However, it should also be borne in mind, that there wasn’t a single a Milgram experiment but 23 variations and the most frequent obedience rate was 60%.

I Don’t Believe You

The idea that Milgram’s results were invalid really rests on another conception – that many participants saw through the ruse, that they didn’t truly believe anyone was being shocked. Milgram always asserted that the vast majority of subjects were fully taken in by the elaborate deception but according to interviews conducted by the ‘learner’ (the actor playing the victim), immediately after the experiments, many obedient participants claimed that they didn’t believe anyone was being harmed.

So high obedience rates are not what they seem on the surface. What they really reveal, in this view, is a desire to go along with what the experiment demands. Obedient subjects feel safe in the knowledge that no-one is really being hurt from them playing along, so they do what they are told.

However, there are reasons to doubt this hypothesis (and not just based on Milgram’s post-hoc survey of participants). In one of Milgram’s variations (no 4) the actor playing the learner comes out from the other room where he was hidden in almost all of the other variations and sits next to the subject. The subject’s role here is to physically place – wearing heavy rubber gloves for protection – the learner’s hand on a metal plate apparently conducting electricity if he makes a mistake remembering the word-pairs (the experiments are presented as a way of discovering the effects of punishment on memory).

Common sense dictates that the entire ruse is most vulnerable to being seen through in this variation. The actor-learner has to do some serious and convincing acting, as opposed to, in most other variations, pressing play on a tape recorder at various intervals, broadcasting his pre-recorded screams. So if the disbelief hypothesis is correct, obedience rates should be high here – a sign that participants realise they are being deceived and do what is expected of them. Actually, they are very low – 30% – one of the lowest in the entire series of experiments.

Conversely, in another variation (Study no 13) where participants do not have to directly ‘shock’ the victim, but merely read out the word-pairs while a confederate of the experimenter flicks the switches on the shock machine, obedience rates are very high – in fact, at 92.5%, the highest in the series.

So when the subject was physically closest to the victim, directly inflicting pain, obedience rates were low but when the subject was furthest away from the victim, playing a secondary (though important) role, obedience was very high. These are the kind of results you might expect if most participants had no doubts the presented scenario was real or at least had limited scepticism.

More evidence that Milgram hit upon a genuine phenomenon, as opposed to merely ‘discovering’ a disturbing propensity he contrived to find, is given by the fact that replications of the obedience experiment in other countries recorded, with one notable exception, similar results.

Ethical Obedience

There was then a long gap when ‘Milgramesque’ experiments did not take place for ethical reasons. The reasons concerned the traumatic effect on participants. In several Milgram variations if subjects obediently continue ‘shocking’ all the way to the end they have good reason to believe that the now silent learner is dead or at least seriously injured.

Then in 2008 a California professor came up with the idea of the “obedience lite” experiment. A copy of Milgram’s shock generator was used but with only 10 switches going up to 150 volts. Milgram’s machine had 30 switches, with the highest being 450 volts. However, browsing Milgram’s results, Professor Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University found that the 150 volts was a common stopping point – “a point of no return”. If subjects went beyond the 150 volt mark they often continued all the way to the end.

So here was a way to conduct a Milgram-type experiment without inflicting trauma on participants. And it turned out Burger’s results were comparable with Milgram’s. 70 per cent of his participants were willing to go beyond the 150 volt level – with Milgram it had been 82.5.

Burger’s innovation has allowed a new generation of Milgramesque experiments to take place. For example, between 2014 and 2017 in Wroclaw, Poland, two researchers carried out what they assert is “the broadest program of empirical investigations of obedience since the times of Milgram’s studies”.

In total five studies were carried out using a replica of Milgram’s machine. As with Burger, the highest switch was normally the tenth (150 volts), though in one study subjects were allowed to go up to the 15th switch (225 volts).

The researchers, Dariusz Doliński and Tomasz Grzyb, are adamant their findings should not be compared with Milgram’s. The one obvious difference is that Milgram’s subjects were encouraged to press 30 switches but they stopped their experiments long before that. But there are others, such as who was recruited, the location, the life experiences of the subjects and the sternness of the experimenter.

However, they are also clear that their experiments show the enduring reality of obedience and the ease with which, given the right circumstances, ordinary people can be induced to obey. 85-90% of their participants (split equally between men and women by the way) exhibited “total obedience” – i.e. they went all the way to the 10th switch. In addition, the verbal prods – “the experiment requires that you continue”, etc., the same as with Milgram – rarely had to be used.

Secret Agents

In fact, the comparisons that can be made with Milgram are fascinating. Despite wide cultural differences and a gap of over five decades, the overwhelmingly dominant result – in both cases defying predictions – was obedience. Moreover, Doliński and Grzyb believe that Milgram’s original explanation for the behaviour of participants – that they enter what he termed an “agentic state” – is hard to refute.

Milgram defined the agentic state as a “social situation” in which a person is open to “regulation by a person of higher status. “In this condition”, he claimed, “the individual no longer views himself as responsible for his own actions but defines himself as an instrument  for carrying out the wishes of others”.

Doliński and Grzyb tried, fruitlessly, to find other explanations for the obedience of their subjects. For example, the greater empathy of certain individuals or the expectation of swapping places with the victim. In the end, however, they were compelled to return to Milgram’s original hypothesis.

“Despite the passing of many years since the studies,” they say, “the agentic state Milgram proposed continues to appear an important and difficult to invalidate means of explaining the obedience of participants in experiments conducted within that paradigm.”

I am not trying to paint a picture of Milgram as a flawless seeker of truth. Although he belatedly came up with the idea of the agentic state, he didn’t think through the implications of what he was proposing and kept resorting to superficial explanations. For example, that ordinary people were torturers beneath the surface and that Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi executed for organising the Holocaust, personified the dilemma of obedience.

In fact, as the book elucidates, Eichmann was a complete red herring. He was an idealistic Nazi and, on occasion, consciously disobedient towards his superior (Himmler, head of the SS). Moreover, the ‘social situation’ of Milgram’s agentic state, with subordinates obeying orders and “superordinates” delivering them, referred explicitly to hierarchical organisations.  As noted long ago by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Nazism was the very opposite of a hierarchical system. Authority derived directly from Hitler, not from thousands of ‘little füehrers’ lording it over their underlings. Eichmann embodied this very well. He was utterly bound up in the Füehrerprinzip, and felt no obligation to his alleged ‘superiors’ in the Nazi system, only to Hitler himself.

Voluntary Hierarchies

Thus, taking totalitarian systems organised around the leader principle out of the equation, you are left with three hierarchical systems that conform to Milgram’s definition: corporations, bureaucracies and conventional militaries.

However, Milgram also highlighted the crucial effect of what he termed “voluntary entry”. Participants not only freely signed up to the experiment they were told, unequivocally, they were free to leave at any point. Enlisted individuals do not have that freedom. Even if they joined voluntarily and were not conscripted, they are subject to military discipline and cannot just abscond.

So, in truth, you are left with two hierarchical organisations that embody Milgram’s agentic state and obedience to authority – corporations and government bureaucracies. Both are utterly dependent on waged labour.

 In part two, I want to examine the – widely unrecognised – implications of this dependence. Or what Milgram, whether he knew it or not, was really talking about.