Institutional Neurosis

Under the most severe forms of "institutionalization" (the term itself is diagnostic), such as prisons, asylums for the mentally ill, orphanages, workhouses for the poor, concentration camps, and old-age homes, there arises a personality disorder sometimes called "institutional neurosis." It is a direct result of long-term institutionalization itself. Those suffering from it are apathetic, take no initiative, display a general loss of interest in their surroundings, make no plans, and lack spontaneity. Because they are cooperative and give no trouble, such institutional subjects may be seen by those in charge in a favorable light, as they adapt well to institutional routines. In the severest cases they may become childish and affect a characteristic posture and gait (in the Nazi concentration camps, such prisoners, near death from privation, were called by other prisoners "Musselmänner") and become withdrawn and inaccessible. These are institutional effects produced by the loss of contact with the outside world, the loss of friends and possessions, and the nature of the staff's power over them.

The question I want to pose is this: Are the authoritarian and hierarchical characteristics of most contemporary lifeworld institutions - the family, the school, the factory, the office, the worksite - such that they produce a mild form of institutional neurosis? At one end of an institutional continuum one can place the total institutions that routinely destroy the autonomy and initiative of their subjects. At the other end of this continuum lies, perhaps, some ideal version of Jeffersonian democracy composed of independent, self-reliant, self-respecting, landowning farmers, managers of their own small enterprises, answerable to themselves, free of debt, and more generally with no institutional reason for servility or deference. Such free-standing farmers, Jefferson thought, were the basis of a vigorous and independent public sphere where citizens could speak their mind without fear or favor. Somewhere in between these two poles lies the contemporary situation of most citizens of Western democracies: a relatively open public sphere but a quotidian institutional experience that is largely at cross purposes with the implicit assumptions behind this public sphere and encouraging and often rewarding caution, deference, servility, and conformity. Does this engender a form of institutional neurosis that saps the vitality of civic dialogue? And, more broadly, do the cumulative effects of life within the patriarchal family, the state, and other hierarchical institutions produce a more passive subject who lacks the spontaneous capacity for mutuality so praised by both anarchist and liberal democratic theorists.

If it does, then an urgent task of public policy is to foster institutions that expand the independence, autonomy, and capacities of the citizenry. How is it possible to adjust the institutional lifeworld of citizens so that it is more in keeping with the capacity for democratic citizenship?