What We Do

logo-brown2-smallestThe Institute for Social Psychohistory (ABN 97 105 547 094) is a research institute established in 2013 for the purpose of promoting research into and advocating on behalf of the field of social psychohistory.

We aim to enhance the study of history by focusing on the intersection point between history and psychology with a view to overcoming the marked tendency to repeat it.

The current Director of the ISPH is Ben Debney. Copies of our Constitution are available on request.

How Did We Get Here? The Rise of The Dominator/Herding Culture

 by Will Tuttle

‘The culture we live in today is a modern continuation of the herding culture that arose in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean basin, and that the central defining belief of this culture is still the same: animals are commodities to be owned, used, and eaten. By extension, nature, land, resources, and people are also seen as commodities to be owned, used, and exploited. While this seems logical to us today as modern inhabitants of a herding and animal-consuming capitalist culture, this is a view with enormous consequences: the commodification of animals marked the last real revolution in our culture, completely redefining human relations with animals, nature, the divine, and each other.’



Tonkin at 50: One of Those Times America Lied to Go to War

johnsonTonkin at 50: One of Those Times America Lied to Go to War

The Vietnam War began in earnest 50 years ago this Monday, when two U.S. ships off the coast of Vietnam began shooting at ghosts.

Claiming to have come under attack by the North Vietnamese, the second Gulf of Tonkin incident would eventually prove a hoax. But not before prompting the United States to escalate its policing of South Vietnam to a full-scale war against the North.

Speaking to the public, President Lyndon Johnson said, “As president and commander in chief, it is my duty to the American people to report that renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply.”

But those “hostile actions” turned out to be nothing at all. As Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer, reporting 30 years ago for the Los Angeles Times, revealed, “a reconstruction of those events, based on once-secret government cables and formerly classified eyewitness accounts, indicates that the attack never occurred.” Continue reading

Caliban and The Witch

asshole-1Silvia Federici speaks about her book ‘Caliban And The Witch – Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation’ that was published in English in 2004 and in German in 2012.

In the book Federici develops the argument – following her historical studies – that capitalism was a reactionary answer to the massive anti-feudal liberation struggles in the late middle ages. In order to stop those (egalitarian) struggles and push through capitalism a general attack on women and the female body was started. The peak of this attack was the burning of the witches.


Intersection #3

With Autumn comes the third installment of the Institute of Social Psychohistory newsetter Intersection; this quarter we look at racist tropes in Game of Thrones, Whiteness as a Great National Safety Valve and Bruce Le Vrai interviews Stan Cohen, author of the seminal study into ideologically-driven scare campaigns, Folk Devils and Moral Panics.

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History Matters.


History matters! In our personal lives, we rely on our memories of our experiences to shape our sense of identity. From these we draw a sense of ourselves as individuals that empowers us to act in the world with agency and thereby to exercise some kind of control over the conditions of our lives. In this instance the relationship between memory and identity is vital to our capacity to exercise our freedom as individuals.

This is no less true when it comes to our collective experiences as members of society, and the collective memories that result from them. This is arguably even more true of our collective memories since there are so many more of them and they’re made by billions over successive generations. Without a sense of ourselves as social actors in a historical sense, how can we possibly exercise agency as social beings?

The short answer, to put it very plainly, is that we can’t. Rather than exercising the same kind of agency in our lives as social beings that we do in our personal lives when in touch with our own past experiences as individuals, we lose our sense of social identity and are put very much at the mercy of anyone willing to use their own knowledge of history to their own advantage. We are tossed around with the proverbial winds of fortune like a dinghy on the high seas, with very little control over the conditions of our own lives.

Thus, knowledge of history is vital. This being the case, the History Matters project endeavours to develop the ways and means not only of stimulating interest in history (which is often lost thanks to the boring and irrelevant experiences we often have as part of formal schooling), but of providing pathways into meaningful and relevant pathways of education and research.

History Matters is an initiative of the Institute for Social Psychohistory. HM has a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/historymattershashtagfact

Border Protection and Whiteness, the Great National Safety Valve

1098059_10151687999940808_1408116723_nThe US historian Frank Van Nuys once described racism as ‘the great national safety value,’ a means for the powerful and well-to-do to take the heat off themselves by shifting the blame for the consequences of increasing wealth inequality, of which they were the direct beneficiaries, onto minorities too numerically weak to organise effective opposition. As seems to be the rule with history, this continues to be true into the present.

The lynchpin for the ‘great national safety valve,’ as David Roediger points out, was the ‘wages of whiteness.’ This latter phrase was derived from an observation made by W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote of a ‘public and psychological wage’ paid to white workers who identified with their white masters on the basis of arbitrary characteristics of appearance — rather than with their fellow workers on the basis of concrete economic interests, regardless of their ethnicity.

In his classic study of ‘The Wages of Whiteness,’ Roediger expands on this theme, demonstrating how the wealthy and powerful employed whiteness historically to create the illusion of a community of interests between ruling and ruled, one based on the ethnicity of the dominant group. Included in the illogic of racism was a tacit bargain with white workers: submit to our authority and we won’t treat you as badly as the others. White workers who accepted this bargain would likely not enjoy meaningful advances in their living standards in the form of collective bargaining wins, but they would be paid off for their docility with small privileges denied their non-white brethren.

In this way, as Roediger, Van Nuys and numerous others (eg. John Higham, Howard Zinn) have demonstrated, ruling groups were often quite effectively able to dampen down the kinds of class antagonisms that, channelled into constructive activities such as labour organising and social struggle, might have in the long run effected meaningful change. Rather than dealing with the causes of wealth inequality and all that encompassed in terms of social misery, ruling groups could, in the words of Cheryl Harris, utilise the great national safety value in ‘evading rather than confronting class exploitation’ (Whiteness as Property, 1741).

Such tactics constituted, one might argue, some of the oldest tricks in the political handbook—divide and conquer in particular. Creating conflict between subject classes or groups by giving small privileges to one especially is classic social control behaviour. Otherwise, while those guilty of perpetrating injustice and inequality through class exploitation might have had a case to answer for criminal behaviour, they could avoid being held to account as long as they gave back some of the proceeds of their criminal activity through what were essentially bribes to some of their victims.

For the victims it was not only a bribe to look the other way, it was also an incentive not to engage in collective bargaining struggles that did not have a guaranteed outcome in terms of better wages or increased control over working conditions. To the extent that workers were already subject to a form of Stockholm Syndrome having been born into a state of economic subjection to capital, the wages of whiteness merely served to reinforce what Erich Fromm referred to as the ‘fear of freedom’ — the terror that someone might want to one day help us to free ourselves from the chains of economic subjection wrought by poverty rooted in economic monopoly. For such attitudes to prevail and to become strengthened in what was ostensibly a democracy was catastrophic for the ideals with which it tended to associate itself.

The logic of the great national safety valve and the wages of whiteness are clearly at play in the moral panic around border security currently being bandied about by the Abbott government, and the various ALP leaderships before that. This is also arguably true of the narratives surrounding terrorism and unknown brown men from across the seas coming to threaten our way of life, into which the scare campaign around border security naturally feeds.

It is certainly clear that Australia as a nation has been compromised; one struggles to find anyone who thinks Australia is the one sung about in our national anthem — especially not apparently when it comes to the line about having ‘boundless plains to share.’ The problem as always is to agree on the cause; as various newspapers have reported in recent years (‘Rich and poor divide underestimated,’ The Age, 15/5/11; Gap between rich and poor widening,’ The Age, 26/5/11;; Oxfam: 85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world,’ The Guardian, 20/1/14) wealth inequality is sharply on the rise.

For many, these are the fruits of neoliberalism and policies that expedite the upwards transferral of wealth. For those attempting to employ the great national safety valve by offering the wages of whiteness, and for those who buy them, the causes are elsewhere — the fault, apparently, of those who have no control at all over economic policy or the ear of those who do.

Another great historian, Joseph Schumpeter, observed of the Roman Empire that the position of the senatorial aristocracy ‘would have become untenable the moment the Roman citizen thought he was menaced by an enemy’ (ie. the senatorial aristocracy). Since ‘the alternative to war was agrarian reform,’ the ancient equivalent of wealth redistribution, ‘the landed aristocracy could counter the perpetual threat of revolution only with the glory of victorious leadership’ (Imperialism and Social Classes, 51-52).

And so it remains, the moral disengagement of the senatorial aristocracy of ancient times mirroring that of the corporate one of today. The War for the Border, like the War against Terrorism that preceded it, is indicative of the same fear of the foreigner that provides the emotional impetus to the great national safety valve.

A cynic once said that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and those who do are condemned to watch everyone else repeat it. This certainly seems to be the case where the logic of whiteness and the great national safety valve is concerned. Fear for the future of one’s family, community and society is certainly understandable; the question in particular for those of us of the dominant ethnicity would appear to be whether we address the actual causes of the problem, or whether we accept the wages of whiteness, and in so doing perpetuate the suffering of others.

Ben Debney is the director of the Institute for Social Psychohistory.

Rome and its Enemies

800px-Roman_Empire_Trajan_117AD“There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest – why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbours, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome’s duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs. They were enemies who only waited to fall on the Roman people.”

- Joseph Schumpeter, Imperialism and Social Classes.