The Political Prison

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Author Mark Satin defines the current political structure as a prison made up of patriarchy and nationalism among other ideas.
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In "New Age Politics: Our Only Real Alternative" author Mark Satin weaves together cutting-edge political ideas, including those which bind our society into a so-called "six-sided prison."

New Age Politics: Our Only Real Alternative (Lorian Press, 2015) by Mark Satin captures the transformational political perspective emerging out of the social movements of our time. Originally published in the 1970s the ideas have been streamlined and are now more relevant than ever. This excerpt comes from chapter 2, “The Six-Sided Prison.”

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

The New Age position suggests that the basic problem has partly to do with the scale of our society: the human scale is beautiful and nearly everything we have now is much too big (and powerful and domineering). And that has little to do with capitalism per se: the Soviet Union’s ridiculous supersonic transport aircraft (“SST”) is even bigger than ours would have been.

But even more, the New Age position suggests that the problem is with “the people” themselves: with us; with what we have become.

And it holds that “what we have become” goes back to a cultural complex whose six main elements predate capitalism by hundreds or even thousands of years – and are all still present, in greater or lesser degree, in the socialist countries as well.

The elements are: patriarchal attitudes, egocentricity, scientific single vision, the bureaucratic mentality, nationalism, and the big-city outlook. 

I like to think of the six elements as making up a “Six-Sided Prison” because a prison is what sociologist Erving Goffman calls a “total institution,” which is a perfect metaphor for what our society is fast becoming – a “megamachine,” to use Lewis Mumford’s deliberately ugly phrase.  (That question of scale again.)

Here, then, are the six sides of Prison, in no particular order.

Patriarchal Attitudes

The patriarchy is a system of power in which – to put it crudely, as it deserves to be put – men rule and women obey. It is the means by which men are able to get women to be their secretaries, make their beds, prop up their egos, and enjoy doing it.

Aspects of the patriarchy may be enforced by law or through such venerable institutions as wife-beating; but mostly it’s enforced by a series of patriarchal attitudes that we don’t even notice.

Patriarchal attitudes are the attitudes, values, and beliefs that are supportive of the patriarchy. The patriarchy wouldn’t exist for a moment without these attitudes, which are socialized into us literally from the day we’re born in the form of sex-role stereotypes. 

For example: men are taught to be aggressive, independent, rational, objective, intelligent, competent, ambitious, unemotional, and detached. And women are taught to be pretty much the opposite: passive, dependent, nonrational. 

Is it any wonder that men (want to) rule, and that (most) women obey? 

We get these stereotypes mostly and most importantly from our parents. Our parents teach us their own sex-role stereotypes that have nothing to do with our own unique temperaments and interests but that lend themselves perfectly to the patterns of submission and dominance that are required by the patriarchy. (They don’t do most of this consciously, of course. They do it more by the raised eyebrow and the exasperated voice, and by the example they set as “mommies” and “daddies.”) 

But where do our parents get these stereotypes from? Just how far back do they go? 

Only one thing is certain: they go back thousands of years before capitalism. 

Some anthropologists believe that societies have always been patriarchal in their power relationships. But many years ago anthropologist Margaret Mead was able to show that that is itself a patriarchal assumption. She went to New Guinea and reported on tribes that were patriarchal and matriarchal and even androgynous. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of societies over the centuries – over the millennia! – do appear to have been patriarchal. 

There is some evidence that thousands of years ago the world was dotted with matriarchies. And these may have been more than just patriarchies spelled with an “m.”  According to historian Elizabeth Gould Davis, there is strong archaeological evidence that in some ancient matriarchies there had been no sacrifices of any living beings, no violent deaths, and – hard to believe – no wars for centuries on end. 

Nobody seems to know why these matriarchies ended. Predictably, Marx and Engels say that it happened because women lost control of the means of production. Not so, says historian Helen Diner: we now know of matriarchies that existed in spite of that fact. Elizabeth Gould Davis says that the matriarchies were conquered by power-hungry males. Kate Millett thinks that it might have had something to do with men figuring out how babies are started. 

In any case, all these writers would agree on the main point: that fairly early on, women had lost whatever position they might have had in society. In her book Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin reminds us in terrible detail that men have engaged in such practices as the binding of women’s feet in China, and the persecution of “witches” in Europe and North America. According to Dworkin, countless numbers of independent women were slaughtered and their separate culture was destroyed.

Obviously, in North America today, the patriarchy does not produce such horrors. But that doesn’t mean patriarchal attitudes run any less deep here. 

For in any patriarchal society, those of us with XX chromosomes are made to feel powerless, inferior, incompetent, ignorant, and unattractive. Or, if we don’t feel these things, then we’ve had to go through quite a struggle to free ourselves from them.

And the patriarchy is almost equally harmful to those of us with XY chromosomes – and not just because power corrupts. The roles and attitudes that the patriarchy requires make it almost impossible for men to love or be emotional; turn us into success objects; keep us out of touch with our bodies; teach us to see women as inferior; and keep us from getting to know our children.

And here’s the coup de grace – every side of the Prison reinforces every other side. 


In the tradition of Western psychology, “egocentricity” refers to selfishness and false pride, and to the notion that the world exists for our own, personal benefit.

In the tradition of Eastern spirituality, and in this book, egocentricity also refers to the notion that we are solid and isolated beings, sealed up in our skins like so many cans on a shelf. 

In this view, egocentricity can include the idea that we are fundamentally separate from other people (as opposed to the idea that we are all One, though we play the game of life in different ways).

Even more radically, egocentricity can include the notion that we “are” our bodies or our social roles (as opposed to simply consciousness).  Zen Buddhism interpreter Alan Watts once wrote, “I have no other self than the totality of things of which I am aware.”

However far you care to take Eastern notions of egocentricity, there can be no doubt about one thing: the idea that we are fundamentally separate and isolated from trees, animals, stars, wind, rocks – from the life that is in all these things (which some Native Americans still call the “Great Spirit”) – is a tragic illusion. 

And yet – not only our isolation from these things, but our domination of them, has been celebrated in our folklore for thousands of years (and is celebrated in Marxist economics).

Why do we cling to our egocentricity? 

According to Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist, we should experience life as “open space,” without any egocentricity. And we did, at first, and as infants we still do. But we quickly become too active in this open space, too caught up in it, because we feel it’s so inspiring. And our hyper-activity causes us to have our first experiences of duality, of I-it, of me-they.  And it’s the experience of duality that causes us to separate ourselves out from the world.

Unlike Trungpa’s version of Buddhism, Zen believes our idea of ourselves can be useful (if we don’t end up identifying it with our “real nature”).  And Meher Baba, the late, great Sufi mystic, is at least as “liberal.” He believes that the formation of egocentricity is a necessary evil. Without it, he says, experience would completely overwhelm us – at first. But as we grow older (he hastens to add), we can transcend our egocentricity.

Whatever their differences, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, and Sufism all seem to agree that egocentricity – our profound sense of separation from other people and The World – is a deep-seated quality in us.  It is not a product of capitalism!

But we shouldn’t conclude that it’s always dominated our consciousness.

Philip Slater, a psychotherapist, says egocentricity came to the fore with the first kings, because they were the first to be seduced into the fantasy of personal power.

Theodore Roszak, a cultural historian, says it took command at the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition, when God was first seen as being something apart from us.

Either way, the point is that for thousands of years our egocentricity has been doing us all great harm:
a. It cuts us off from each other. 
b. It keeps us from realizing our obligation to love and respect our environment; and without this love and respect for all things there can be no peace or understanding (see Doug Boyd’s book about a Shoshone medicine man, Rolling Thunder). 
c. It makes us keep wanting to have more.
d. It makes us live in and for the future – or the past. We can never simply be where we are now (see Ram Dass, The Only Dance There Is). 
e. It causes us constantly to emphasize our separateness from others through craving, hate, anger, fear, and jealousy (see anything by Roszak).
f. It makes us terribly afraid of death.
‘Nuff said?

Scientific single vision

Scientific single vision (or the “scientific outlook”) is a way, our way, of seeing the world. It’s the way most of us think about things, including ourselves, “life in general.”

Scientific single vision is intellectual rather than sensuous, active rather than receptive, analytic rather than intuitive, verbal rather than spatial. It tends to be more interested in argument than experience, more interested in understanding things sequentially (in terms of cause and effect) than as patterned wholes, more concerned with time than with eternity (consciousness researcher Robert Ornstein is particularly eloquent on these points).

In North America, it’s the outlook par excellence not only of scientists but of doctors and lawyers, businessmen and scholars, politicians and revolutionaries – of nearly everyone who’s managed to “make it big” outside of the arts. Which is, maybe, why most of us are convinced that it’s the only correct way of seeing the world, of getting at “the truth.”

People who come up with other ways of seeing are usually called “crazy” or worse. But are they?

Over the last 10 years or so, many of us have begun to discover whole cultures that share in an alternate way of seeing the world. Zen, Vedanta, Sufism, North American Indian culture – whatever their differences, each of them seems, in its way of seeing, to be the polar opposite of the scientific outlook: sensuous rather than intellectual, receptive rather than active, intuitive rather than analytic.

At the same time, many recent investigators have begun to gather evidence that the two sides of the brain are specialized for different modes of consciousness. The left side of the brain is, apparently, specialized for analysis, verbal facility, linear time-orientation and the like; the right side of the brain for pattern recognition, spatial orientation, holistic thinking and the like.

So the reality would appear to be that, not only do different ways of seeing exist, not only do some of them go back thousands of years, but that these alternate ways of seeing are rooted in the right side of the brain just as much as scientific single vision is rooted in the left.

Even in science’s own terms, the alternate outlooks are as real and as valid as the scientific outlook!

The real question is, why is our culture so crazy as to promote – to be practically based on! – an outlook that requires us to ignore the signals that are coming to us from the right side of our brains.

Theodore Roszak traces the scientific outlook back to the ancient Jewish belief that people who worshipped objects were being abusive of God (who was supposed to be invisible). According to Roszak, the Jews were simply suffering from a cultural misunderstanding; they didn’t realize that for the peasants, God was manifest equally in all things. But the damage was done: from that point on, things began to lose their transcendent qualities and became merely objects to be manipulated.

And that was only the beginning. Later we would come to actively dislike the natural world. According to Joel Kovel, a psychohistorian, this dislike began when we learned to dislike our feces (for as we became more “civilized” we began to practice some pretty harsh versions of toilet-training); but it quickly and inevitably spread outward to all natural things.

Soon it was only a matter of time before we devised a system for subduing and punishing nature (as opposed to simply working with her), and cutting ourselves off from her as much as possible. According to Roszak, the most important step here was taken by Galileo, for he did more than any other person to define the “real” world as only what could be precisely defined in physical terms: if it couldn’t be counted, it didn’t really count.

Cultural historian Lewis Mumford puts the turning point a century or so earlier.  He highlights Copernicus’s discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun (rather than vice-versa), for that appeared to give us the cultural authority to dominate everything everywhere.

Either way, the point is that the scientific outlook arose well before capitalism, and that, because it is so narrow, it’s done us all great harm:
a. It has cut us off from other dimensions of reality besides the material.
b. It’s helped us forget that after all the “objective” facts are in, we still have to make moral choices and value judgments.
c. It’s led to our worship of machines and technology.
d. lt’s led to a society made up of mostly unrelated specialties and specialists.
e. lt’s led to a separation of means and ends in almost every aspect of human endeavor.

It hasn’t even delivered on what it promised in its own terms. As Ornstein, Roszak, and many others have spelled out, we haven’t understood the material world “with absolute certainty” by ignoring our subjective experience of that world. We haven’t understood human nature by describing it statistically. We haven’t understood history by reading it scientifically.

Roll over, Galileo.

The Bureaucratic Mentality

Bureaucracies are organizations that are run from the top down and that see people, us, as means to the bureaucracies’ own ends (above all that of self-preservation). When bureaucracies are dominant in a society, as they are in ours, they naturally and inevitably tend to foster a kind of consciousness in us that I and others call the “bureaucratic mentality.” According to sociologists like Peter Berger and William Howton, some of its key elements are: 
a. Status consciousness. Everybody has their place – “above” or “below” you.
b. Depersonalization. Everybody comes to see themselves as things, objects, numbers.
c. Predictability. Everything is done by means of “regular procedures” that are rigidly laid out in advance.
d. Orderliness. Everything is supposed to fit neatly into some category. (If it doesn’t, we might just pretend that it doesn’t exist – like we did with the patriotism of the Viet Cong.) 
e. Efficiency. This is not only the highest social value, it’s the greatest metaphysical virtue. 
f. Arbitrariness. Rules and rituals are followed because they are supposed to be followed – because they are there.
g. Discipline. Everybody is supposed to abide by the rules, or else. 

If the bureaucratic mentality is a natural and inevitable result of the rise of bureaucratic organizations, then it can’t be blamed on human nature. But it can’t be blamed on capitalism either. For bureaucratic organizations (and their accompanying mentality) go back thousands of years.

According to Lewis Mumford, they go back 5000 years, to Egypt and Mesopotamia. According to Howton, they go back “only” 2000 years, to Rome, because the Roman bureaucrats were the first to know that they owed their power to their offices, rather than to God. 

But bureaucracies have by no means appeared everywhere since Rome. Why, then, does bureaucracy and the bureaucratic mentality appear everywhere in the “civilized” world in our time?  I suspect it has a lot to do with the growth in strength of the other sides of the Prison.  Patriarchal attitudes, for example, caused us to become more domineering; egocentricity, more ambitious; and scientific single vision, more arrogant. And “important,” centralized, and hierarchical organizations are nothing if not a means for allowing us to be domineering and ambitious and arrogant (in our different ways). 

Is there really any need to repeat out loud some of the harmful things that have been done to us by the bureaucratic mentality?

To begin with, take another look at those seven key elements of the bureaucratic mentality, enumerated above.  Every single one of them encourages us to lose sight of our humanity in the interests of a “higher” logic. Every single one of them encourages us to think of other people as a means – or, worse, as “sand in the gears” – rather than as vulnerable, valuable, and unique.

The fact that the bureaucratic mentality is impersonal makes it seem objective – a cardinal virtue for Prisoners, as we saw in the section on scientific single vision – and that makes it extremely difficult to argue against.  (Look at our “defense” policies.)

Once the bureaucratic mentality becomes pervasive in a society, we increasingly stop seeing ourselves as acting on behalf of our own purposes, and increasingly see ourselves as acting as agents for others. The psychologist Stanley Milgram calls this the “agentic state,” and he warns that when we’re in this state we no longer see ourselves as responsible for our actions.

That goes a long way toward explaining why so many of us are psychologically able to sell cars that are built to break down in five years, work strip mines, and kill people in wars we know little about.


It is natural for us to love our immediate surroundings – town, city, or countryside – but it takes an artificial effort to make us love a whole nation. It’s natural for us to feel loyal to family and friends and to the people in our community, but it takes special civic training to make us feel loyal to everyone who’s supposed to constitute our nation … every last person in Arizona, Connecticut, etc. … and no one else.

Nationalism seems natural to us. But it only seems natural because we’re living in giant nation-states, and because we’re living in the Prison.

In tribal society, our highest loyalties were to our friends and our immediate communities. And even after tribal society was replaced by the great military empires, nationalism wasn’t forced on us. All (all?) the Egyptians or Persians or Romans wanted from us was money and soldiers. They didn’t try to weld us into “one people.”

Well into the 16th century, most of Europe was “localistic” or “universalistic”’ – not nationalistic. According to historian Carleton Hayes, the peasants were loyal to lord and village. And many religious people and scholars were universalists, the kind of people nationalists have always mistrusted (and mistreated – in situations ranging from the “labor” camps of Siberia to the book review page of the Toronto Globe and Mail).

In the 16th century, the triumph of Prison values plus new developments in military technology led to the “emergence” – as they say in the polite history books – of the monarchical nation-state. And the nation-state was nationalist from the very beginning. It had to be and has to be, because it has to convince people to feel loyal to it rather than to their immediate or self-chosen worlds.

Even so, among all but the intelligentsia, the new nationalism spread slowly. According to Hayes, it was given its first big boost by the French revolution. The revolutionary “patriots,” nationalists, singers of the “Marseillaise,” short-sightedly identified the ideals of liberty and equality with the idea of nationalism. And so they crushed the peasants who tried to fight against the nationalization of the historic provinces of France and the elimination of provincial rights. Then they took their revolution abroad.

Nationalism got its next big boost with the introduction of universal, compulsory schooling.  Hayes states that compulsory schooling was intended primarily “to unify a people by belittling their economic, social, [cultural], occupational, and religious differences and by emphasizing their national language and the inculcation of a common national patriotism.”  This strategy was set in stone as a consequence of World War I, when there seemed to be a direct connection, in nearly every country on earth, between the number of “schooled” people and the degree of unquestioning national loyalty. 

So nationalism has nothing to do with human nature – and nothing to do with capitalism, either (by 1900 even communism had become a patriotic force). But just because it’s artificial, or “constructed,” as a sociologist might put it – has it really done us that much harm?

Yes, it has.

From the very beginning, nationalism has served as a kind of bogus and vulgarized religion, with its “sacred” rituals and texts and its missionary zeal. And so we’ve come to feel that we are a chosen people; that our nation is eternal; that the deaths of its sons add to its glory; and that we need to guard ourselves against foreign “devils” (Hayes is particularly good on these points). 

Our nationalism has made us insufferably chauvinistic. If we are from big nation-states, we tend to feel that the world revolves around us and that other places and peoples are of lesser value. If we are from smaller nation-states, we tend to feel so defensive that often we shut ourselves off from outside influences even more completely. 

Finally, our nationalism encourages us to spend more energy thinking about “nationally important” political machinations and cultural icons, than we do about the lives and needs of people in our immediate communities, and the lives and needs of people across the globe.  And that ain’t right.

The Big-City Outlook

By a “big city” I mean any oversized place.  In our century I would classify as big every city that has more than half a million inhabitants or so. Because above that size, as E. F. Schumacher and others have pointed out, nothing is added to the value of a city, to its street life, its cultural offerings, its virtue.

The “big city outlook” is what happens inevitably to our outlook on life when we end up living in big cities, no matter how “nice” or “cosmopolitan” they are. 

What happens is this: the very existence of the big city creates enormous problems that we can’t get away from – and our outlooks are shaped by these problems. Among them: noise pollution, overcrowding, overspecialization, rootlessness, anonymity, hustle and bustle, the loss of the human scale (I am deliberately omitting problems like rat infestation and physical deterioration that could conceivably be solved without reducing city size). 

Because our big cities are so “modern,” so technologically advanced, it’s tempting to conclude that the problems they pose for our outlooks on life are new and therefore traceable to capitalism.

But nothing could be further from the truth.  As Lewis Mumford emphasizes, huge, oversized cities go all the way back to Egypt and Mesopotamia, where the first kings, eager to consolidate their new power, managed to replace the decentralized village economy with a highly centralized and therefore primarily urban one – centralized, that is, around the kings’ needs. 

But big cities have not always been dominant since then. According to Mumford, they tend to become really big only toward the end of a civilization – which suggests that their overexpansion has less to do with positive economic forces than with perverse psycho-cultural ones.

Certainly that is the case today: all over North America, the whole cultural structure of rural life has been collapsing, and people have been pouring into the biggest cities even with no prospects of finding decent work there.

In Mumford’s words, “The persistence of these overgrown containers would indicate that they are concrete manifestations of the dominant forces in our present civilization; and the fact that the same signs of overgrowth and overconcentration exist in ‘communist’ Soviet Russia as in ‘capitalist’ United States shows that these forces are universal ones, operating almost without respect to the prevailing ideologies.”

The big city outlook that we absorb in these “overgrown containers” is not pretty.

For living in a place where endless streams of anonymous people pass us by every day, helps to convince us that human life is cheap.

And living in a place where many of us feel out of touch with nature, or with life as a whole process, helps to convince us that we have no real impact on the environment.

And living in a place where pollution, crime, overspecialization, rootlessness, etc., appear to be unavoidable facts of life, helps convince us that Prison values are necessary for our survival – that they are, in fact, natural and good. 

The big cities that arose in Egypt and Mesopotamia were deliberately designed to bedazzle residents with the achievements of the so-called divine kings. The monumental architecture of ancient Rome was admittedly designed to over-awe the public.

Can’t we also say that this is the underlying function of the Toronto-Dominion Bank buildings in Toronto and Vancouver, and the World Trade Center in New York, and the important government buildings in Moscow and Peking? Can’t we say that the latent message put forward by these massive and inhuman structures is: you, my friend, are vastly insignificant; you are merely a passing shadow on my lowermost windows; so don’t get out of line.

Our big city outlooks have absorbed that message well.

Reprinted with permission fromNew Age Politics: Our Only Real Alternative by Mark Satin and published by Lorian Press, 2015.
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