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Hoffer on Mass Movements

In this more-or-less weekly feature, I will explore the applicability of Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer — Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements to space exploration and the space advocacy community in particular. I will follow the format of the book, with a summary of Hoffer’s arguments in yellow highlight followed by my comments on their applicability to space advocacy. Some chapters may end up being combined with others or skipped over entirely.

II. The Desire for Substitutes

A mass movement can be said to differ from a "practical organization" (such as a Chamber of Commerce or professional association) in the nature of its appeal to adherents. A practical organization appeals to self-interest and the desire for self-advancement, while a mass movement offers its participants a means to rid themselves of an unwanted self. Mass movements don’t promise self-advancement, but rather self-renunciation.

While a practical organization survives on its ability to cater to the self-interest of its members, a mass movement’s fortunes rise and fall according to its ability to motivate self-renunciation. When a movement begins to attract members whose participation is motivated by personal advancement or gain, it is a sign that it has turned the corner from a mission-oriented undertaking to one focused on preserving and benefiting from the status quo: "It ceases then to be a movement and becomes an enterprise."

The difference between a mass movement and a practical organization is clear in the contrast between the Mars Society and the AIAA.

The AIAA started out as a pair of different organizations founded by rocketry and aviation enthusiasts, and over time morphed into the primary professional organization of the aerospace industry. The Institute offers a wide range of professional development classes and knowledge-enhancing technical courses; local chapters offer opportunities to network with other aerospace professionals; and the organization as a whole works to represent to political leaders the interests of the industry as a whole (versus just the companies, which is the turf of the Aerospace Industries Association). The Institute has long since shifted away from any sense of being a "movement" that it might have had in its earlier incarnations, and has come to represent the interests of the space community status quo — it has transformed itself from a movement to an institution.

The Mars Society, being a new organization, has not yet progressed from its movement phase to its institutional phase. While there are opportunities for personal advancement (in the form of, say, geology students performing field research toward a degree during a tour of duty at one of the Research Stations), the Society is overwhelmingly populated by volunteers (in the purest sense), who sacrifice their time and energies to forwarding the organization’s goals with no expectation of a personal gain.

Another example is the Shuttle program. While serious technical and financial arguments can be made against a prolonged continuation of the program, an emotional argument can be made against it as well. All along, NASA has portrayed the Shuttle as being “routine access to space”. Astronauts are professionals, rather than daredevils. The destination is quotidian, not ambitious. The focus of the program, as compared with Apollo, is not so much an adventure but an an institution. The Shuttle program offers opportunities for self-improvement for a select few, but it does not allow enthusiasts to immerse themselves in the “space cause” to any significant extent. As a result, we see the steady erosion of support for NASA generally and the Shuttle in particular among space exploration advocates, in favor of alternatives that restore a sense of daring and adventure, of vicarious greatness in which enthusiasts can immerse themselves.

Those who see their own lives as flawed will not be motivated by opportunities for self-advancement, nor will individualist pursuits stir them. "They look on self-interest as on something tainted and evil: something unclean and unlucky." To escape this unwanted self, they seek either a fresh start, or immersion in a "holy cause" greater than themselves. These alternatives are actually one and the same, the immersion in the cause providing a chance for rebirth into a "new life".

When a man does not see his self-interest as a worthy pursuit, his search for substitutes may take the form of interference in the affairs of others on the interpersonal scale, or the immersion in a collective, coercive "noble cause" on the societal scale. Minding the affairs of others substitutes for the lack of respect for one’s own affairs, as it provides a sense of purpose and duty to others seemingly untainted by self-interest. But, "[w]hat looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life." The altruistic cause is less about the ostensible benefits to the intended recipients than the boon to those delivering them — those who pursue selfless ends ironically often do so for selfish reasons.

Beyond the personality quirks of certain members, altruistic coercion is not really a hallmark of the space advocacy movement, certainly not to the degree that it afflicts other movements such as environmentalism or social justice activism. Some space advocates may militate for taxpayer funding for their pet project regardless of whether the public wants to pay for it, but this is not the same as demanding a total reformation of the social and economic order via the fist of centralized government power — whether the people want it or not. Altruism and coercion, in the usual senses, do not really apply to space activism by the very nature of the goals it seeks.

However, it is plain from any space-related gathering that the space advocacy community is filled with intelligent people who are dissatisfied, frustrated, or just bewildered by their lot in life. They seek escape from their personal circumstances through immersion in something they perceive as great and noble, something which belongs to the future and is thus not tainted by the flawed present.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Trekker phenomenon. The Star Trek mythos is overtly altruistic and socialist in outlook, and is held up as an "ideal vision" that just maybe could be the future of Mankind, if enough people work towards that goal. Immersion in the cause takes the form of adopting Trek-themed alter egos — a form of "new life", albeit a temporary and fictional one, which provides escape from the stultifying reality of the present.

The rest of the chapter is self-explanatory:

Another important substitute involves hope. As noted in previous essays, the desire for change requires a vision of the future. Those who are frustrated have often lost — or never had — an individual hope for the future, making them receptive to a mass movement promising a collective one in the form of a noble but distant goal attainable through selfless devotion to the cause. Those who feel that their own interests are of little value seek goals outside themselves for which to live.  "Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves." The mass movement offers the frustrated an external substitute for the personal worth and meaning whose source they cannot find within themselves. Identification with the aims and achievements of the movement provides a substitute for the flawed elements of the self, or for the flawed self in its entirety.

The smaller a man believes himself to be, the greater esteem he assigns the cause to which he clings. As a psychological lifeline, the frustrated will cling desperately to their cause, exhibiting the immoderate passion for something "bigger than ourselves" which is often described as "the zeal of the converted". "We cannot be sure we have something worth living for unless we are ready to die for it."  This extravagant zeal is intended as proof (to the adherent and the world around him) that the selfless substitute is indeed greater than the flawed self for which it fills in.

While it doesn’t quite approach the extreme of “dying for the cause”, the mindset described above is clearly apparent in the aerospace industry. Among the aerospace employees I have met, across several different companies, there is a clear, almost binary distinction between the self-interested and the true believers. The self-interested carry out their jobs with the same sort of dedication and effort that they would put into their work regardless of what industry they happen to be employed in — the product is interesting and dramatic, but when it comes down to it, the product is just a product and the job is just a job. In contrast, the enthusiast’s motivation derives from the nature of the work itself. The industry is the means towards achieving a sacred cause, and the product itself is a holy relic being created before their eyes — indeed, by their own hands. Though the pay may be low, the hours long, and the job security nonexistent, the enthusiast persists, motivated by the belief that there is no other industry or pursuit as worthwhile of his efforts and talents. The enthusiast may make more money and advance faster designing automobiles or manufacturing appliances, but such pedestrian ends would fail to fill the space inside that requires the holy cause he has chosen.

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