Alex Comfort

The State and Human Behaviour




This is an extract from Chapter I Part II of Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State. The author focus on incentives and disincentives to social behaviour that would work better than the usual ones (financial incentives, fear, power, punishments) in fostering good social relations. The fact is that the rulers (political, economic) are not at all interested in exploring and implementing new incentives and disincentives as they would conflict with their centralised control and power.




Centralized society has developed a theory of incentives at least as rigid as its theory of government. Industrialism in its early stages wrought such disorder in the existing pattern of life that its students may well have mistaken a highly abnormal for a typical state of affairs. Many of the presuppositions of our culture are traceable to the belief that no man will work without the sanction of poverty, exactly as its politics assume that no man will be sociable except under pressure.

Social incentives in various cultures are affected by too many elements, including crude physical actors such as climate, for generalization to be possible. Industrial society, lacking accurate data, provides only three main driving forces, profit, power, and fear, and a large number of its difficulties have arisen from these assumptions. Even in our own society to-day, profit unsupported by fear of destitution is not as potent a force as its theorists believed - acquisition is only practised for its own sake by obsessionals of the miser or collector type. The genuinely incentive elements in profit as a source of work and of delinquency are probably rather the status, security, or facilities which it gives than the immediate economic advantage. Power as an incentive we have already discussed. Fear is by far the most important cohesive force in modern centralized societies. It is the most convenient means of influencing conduct when common ground ceases to exist between the legislator and the public, and it can capitalize the confusion and aggression which make more positive approaches useless. Unfortunately it also aggravates the difficulties which the confusion and aggression create.

Fear, maintained by legislative and commercial groups as a main technique of persuasion, has already become our most important means of government. This is as true at the level of 'blood, tears and sweat' as at the level of body odour and constipation. Crowds, like bullocks, are most easily directed by loud noises. The modern citizen lives under a barrage of threats directed at his security, his independence, his sexual powers, and his desire to maintain a competitive status. This continual uproar blends with the inherent insecurity of asocial life, and with its phenomenal speed and congestion, to play a large part in the production of individual anxiety states, and in their counterpart, the chronic political, social or economic crisis. These newspaper crises are reflected statistically in the suicide and accident rate, and in the incidence of physical conditions such as perforated peptic ulcer. We have become too far acclimatized in the continuous noise, insecurity and movement of centralization to be fully aware of its effects, but these appear to include an observable sympathotonia, a continuous readiness for 'fight or flight' in the face of traffic, machinery, political speeches, wars, slumps and threats. Any temporary withdrawal of these stimuli leaves an unnatural quiet, like that which we notice when a clock stops.

The failure of the incentive-mechanism in industry has provoked a great deal of study. Russian communism, while fully exploiting fear and privilege as incentives, shows a better understanding of human behaviour by supplementing them with appeals to social status, the desire for approval and the competitive impulse. The difficulties which social democracy is encountering to-day are largely due to its neglect of basic human urges. The most significant positive incentives are probably emulation, expressed in dominance-patterns of proficiency rather than power, the enjoyment of creative occupation, the desire for social approval, and the attainment of a secure status. Financial incentives of the orthodox type having failed to reconcile individuals to the absence of such rewards, centralized governments find themselves driven to rely on straightforward coercion and conscription of labour. In this case again, the techniques of wartime government tend to become increasingly incorporated into peacetime life.

The problem of repetition work can only be overcome by a recognition of the facts and by a definite restatement of values. There is a case for accepting a reduction in the standard of physical amenities if we can obtain greater personal stability by doing so. Some at least of the unsatisfactory occupations could be eliminated by this means, others by a more determined application of technology. The extension of local responsibility, and of workers' control in industry, are also means of overcoming individual frustration. The main manufacture of a civilized social community is satisfactory individual life, and to this administrative norms such as productivity, Great Power status and efficiency, are entirely secondary. Whether syndicalism, or the other types of economic solution offered by political theory, are answers to these problems can only be ascertained by experiment. The idea that human beings only work if forced to do so is a product of the system which rests on that assumption - it does not apply in the comradeship group, the primitive society, or the scientific research unit. No psychologist has yet determined the forms of external coercion, other than the coercion of the physical universe, which provided the incentives of Freud, Lister or Pasteur. It is the fate of our culture to make us underestimate ourselves.




Our negative incentives are of the same kind. The controversy which still rages over the means of dealing with delinquents turns on the efficacy and desirability of punishment, but punishment itself is more complex than the simple clout for disobedience and sugarstick for obedience which we tend traditionally to accept. In the first place, punishment may be deterrent, designed to inspire fear in others rather than reform in the delinquent: it may be reformative, a compulsory measure of psychotherapy: it may be retributive, and satisfy the impulses of society towards revenge and atonement. To this complication we have to add the fact that we now know that punishment may be actively desired, and may itself prove a source of satisfaction rather than of discomfort to the individual.

Since the advent of penal psychiatry, punishment as a means of dealing with delinquents has come to exist at two levels. On one hand we have the attempt to rationalize existing legal and administrative penal methods: on the other, the prisons and the courts as they are. The attempts to apply science to the prevention and cure of delinquency, so long as they are institutional and official attempts, have to be ingrafted on a system which assumes that social misconduct is the outcome of deliberate and malicious choice, and that such choice is best deterred or altered by confinement in the company of other delinquents, under conditions of squalor and idleness, and under a discipline designed to undermine self-respect and sociality. The enormous progress which has been made in some types of penal institution is always something added or affixed to this older pattern. Irrational and delinquent tendencies among the legislators, personal maladjustments giving rise to demands for bigger floggings and severer disciplines, perpetually hinder the attempts of the more progressive and better-informed penologists to make their ideas effective. The debates of the Houses upon the Death Penalty make depressing reading.

In fact, it is no longer possible to follow the conservative school of penologists, who take law and punishment at their face value as purposive mechanisms for suppressing delinquency, without turning a blind eye to an entire field of recent research. Precisely as there are grounds for suspecting that power is chiefly a mechanism for the discharge of aggression, there are reasons for inferring a widespread aggressive and unconscious motivation in penal law which makes nonsense of any attempt to treat its professed objects as real. Since Westermarck pointed out that no culture could regard its attitude to delinquency as rational until all primitive religion had been removed from its methods of dealing with violators, the face-value estimate of law and punishment in Western societies has become more and more dissonant with experimental and observational research.

The most cogent evidence for the rejection of punishment as a means of modifying conduct comes from the field experience gained in experiments with delinquents, normal and abnormal children, and even chronic recidivists who have exhausted the repertoire of legal penalties. [*] Work of this kind shows a striking unanimity of response in all these groups to the type of social approach which is unindignant, unofficial, and based on the rehabilitation of positive social attitudes by the agency of what Christian theologians have termed charity, and what we may term human solidarity. This approach in no way implies a preference for the delinquent, or a neglect of the mischief he may do. It is, however, both empirically justified by a long tradition of human experience, which political theory has tended to despise, and theoretically justified by the knowledge of the mechanisms which form conduct. Sentimentalism, from which attempts at penal reform have not been immune, is in essence a concentration of feeling on the pleasurable sensations produced by an action or a belief rather than on its truth or appropriateness; these are condemnations which apply not only to over-tolerance, by reformers, of antisocial conduct, but to most of the policies of institutional punishment, which are eminently unfitted to their supposed objects.

No society, however utopian, is likely to remove altogether the causes of delinquency. We can, however, reject elements in society which we recognize as favouring them. The mechanism of restraint which operates most effectively is one which centralized institutional societies undermine - the interaction of public opinion and introjected social standards. The only case in which crime in this world brings evitable consequences on the criminal is when it occurs in social group from which there is no satisfactory escape, and in violation of universal standards. Our lack of experience of this force of public opinion in city aggregates makes us rather too ready to underestimate it. The ultimate sanctions of such a community, ostracism and excommunication, are probably more powerful than any form of institutional penalty. They may enforce restitution, expiation, or even banishment. How far these reactions in society are properly punishments is a matter of terminology.



[*] See W. D. Wills, The Hawkspur Experiment, Allen & Unwin, 1941; Eliminating Punishment in the Residential Treatment of Troublesome Boys and Young Men, Psychological and Social Series, 1946; and M. Paneth, Branch Street, Gollancz, 1945. See also references to Wehrli, Osborne, Kellerhals and several others in P. Riewald, op. cit.


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