Almost all societies in human history have been authoritarian, ruled by monarchs, aristocracies, oligarchies or other elites. Individualism or respect for civil rights or human rights hardly even existed before modern times, and democracy was at best a theoretical concept. None of this really existed anywhere until 150-200 years ago. In addition, slavery, serfdom or others forms of un-free labor were the norm, as were torture, public executions and other extremely harsh punishments for criminals, deviants and non-conformists. By historical standards at least, the society that existed in the U.S. at the time of the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 was more democratic and egalitarian than most that had existed in the past. At the same time, expectations were much higher than they had been in the past, and practices that had once been accepted without question such as oppression of women and minorities or waging wars of aggression (like Vietnam) were increasingly being protested and criticized. Certainly at that time, the prison system was harsh and the treatment that the poor and minorities received in the criminal justice system was often brutal. Within this overall context, the Stanford Experiment was an examination of how white, middle class from a relatively privileged background would react when placed in—for them—an extraordinary situation of losing the personal freedom, autonomy and individual rights. For this group of young men, contrary to the historical norm in America or the rest of the world, all this was taken for granted. So was the idea that they were entitled to education or that they would have a reasonable expectation of joining the middle class. As a group, they would also have had no reason to expect that they would ever be associated with the police, prison guards or other individuals involved in direct social control. When given the opportunity, however, they found that they were quite able to perform such tasks in a highly repressive and authoritarian manner. In this sense, the environment or the institution was not only able to shape the men, and they in turn shaped it in such a way as to make life much worse for the ‘prisoners’ under their control.
Every society in history has had guards, police, soldiers and other enforcers, but that has usually a lower class occupation. Interestingly, these young men from the educated middle classes, often with radical or liberal ideas common in their generation, fell quickly into traditional authoritarian roles and behaviors. Even the liberal psychologists running the experiment did as well, and it happened so quickly that it seemed automatic and imperceptible, almost as if such behaviors had been programmed into them on some deep level. This may or may not be genetically ‘hard-wired’ into all human beings, but it certainly seems to be culturally and historically determined. If these young men had been in the Third Reich, Stalin’s Russia or a more traditional authoritarian society, most of them would have been capable of the worst kind of brutality and atrocities, and of obeying orders without question. Conversely, had then been prisoners, concentration camp inmates or slaves on plantations, they would also quickly have fallen into roles of passivity, dependence and obedience, simply in order to survive.
All of the participants in the Stanford Experiment rapidly fell into their roles to such a degree that they came to believe the ‘prison’ was real. It became so real in fact that the guards began to inflict physical and psychological torture on the inmates, while the latter were severely traumatized and dehumanized to such a degree that the experiment had to be called off early, after only six days instead of two weeks. One of the guards was so harsh and sadistic that the prisoners nicknamed him ‘John Wayne’, and while not all of them became gratuitously sadistic, they were united in maintaining order and discipline in the ‘prison’ and felt no regrets for their actions. Both the guards and the administrators inflicted punishments on prisoners who rebelled, threaten to escape or went on hunger strikes, and by the sixth day had broken most of them psychologically, so that they had thoroughly internalized their role as powerless inmates. They stripped the prisoners naked, humiliated and degraded them, denied them food and medical care and locked ‘troublemakers’ in solitary confinement. For a generation of young people that prided itself on protest, rebellion and liberal thought, this young men began to act shockingly like guards in the worst prison imaginable or guards in a Nazi concentration camp, and this happened with astonishing rapidity.
In history, of course, even most of the guards, physicians and officers who were assigned to German concentration camps adjusted to their role very quickly, although they were often shocked and horrified by it at first. Like the ‘guards’ in the Stanford Prison Experiment, some came to enjoy the power they had over the prisoners and take sadistic pleasure in the misery they could inflict on them, and after all they had been told these were ‘inferior’ persons or at least enemies of Germany. Other Nazi guards simply became automations and robots, carrying out whatever orders they were given but showing neither sympathy nor excessive cruelty to the inmates, and this type also existed in the Stanford experiment. Those who were too sympathetic to the prisoners were pressured by their peers and superiors to conform, while prisoners who were especially rebellious or noncompliant would be singled out for special punishments. This is the norm in all prisons and penal institution, with the German camps representing the most extreme case.
More so than in 1971, the U.S. today is dominated by a capitalist oligarchy that controls the government and political system in its own interests. On many ways, the U.S. has reverted to the type of system that existed before the Affluent Society and great expansion of the middle class in 1945-70. By historical standards, this era turned out to be exceptional, as did the expectation that each generation would have more rights and greater economic opportunities than its predecessors. Once again, that has definitely not been the norm in most of human history, nor was it even the norm for most of the world in 1971, much less the present time. Certainly the have-nots and minorities have always been repressed in this society, as were the black prisoners in Attica shortly after the end of the original Stanford experiment. In the present, however, organized labor and the middle class are far weaker than they were forty years ago, and the system grants “excessive power to the most affluent” and lower quality education, housing and economic opportunities to the majority (Edsall 2012). A society with this level of poverty and inequality will certainly have to use authoritarian and police state methods to maintain the ruling class in power, and it is no accident that the U.S. has a much higher percentage of its population in prison or on probation than any other Western country. There are far more people locked up now than in 1971, even though the authorities seemed quite repressive then toward protests by students and minority groups, while today the majority of prison inmates are still black and Hispanic and from the most disadvantaged classes in society.
Edsall, Thomas. Book Review of Separate and Unequal: The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz. New York Times, August 3, 2012.
Stanford Prison Experiment, 1999-2012.