Torture, class and power

"'How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?' "Winston thought. 'By making him suffer,' he said. "'Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own?'" (George Orwell 1984).

Lynndie England is a young American soldier who has been catapulted from obscurity to global notoriety in only a few weeks. Photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused and humiliated feature her showing every sign of being amused by their suffering. The scenes of torture are terrible enough, but Lynndie's small-town, girl-next-door grin, as she points to the genitals of a naked, hooded Iraqi man, or her indifference as she holds a leash around the neck of another as he lies on the floor, provide a focus for shock and wonder.

For all the talk of 'trailer trash' in the world's press, Lynndie England seems to have been a bright student at school. She enlisted into the 372nd Military Police Company, but her choice of unit probably had less to do with its speciality than the fact that it was based only a few miles from her home. Like thousands of others, she found herself carried by US foreign policy to Iraq. Finally, in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, she was actively, even playfully, involved in the abuse and degradation of fellow human beings.

It seems natural to ask the question, why? How do we understand the phenomenon of, and the psychology behind, torture?

In researching this article, I discovered that an enormous amount has been written on this subject already - but of course largely based on bourgeois liberal assumptions and values. Can a specifically communist analysis provide greater clarity?

It must begin not by trying to guess what was happening inside Lynndie's head, but by looking at the material world - now, and in history.


Any discussion of torture must begin by looking at pain.

The evolutionary importance of pain is clear. Any random genetic twist which makes an animal more likely to avoid physical injury than others of the same species will promote its survival over theirs. The self-protective animal will be more likely to live long enough to pass its genetic disposition on to its offspring, amongst whom further genetic drift will be selectively promoted in the same way.

Humans are, of course, the product of many millions of such changes towards ever greater sensitivity to physical injury, and ever greater displeasure associated with that sensitivity: the displeasure of pain.

In short, the capacity to feel pain, and be motivated to avoid it, promotes our safety and our survival. Though it can be unspeakably dreadful to endure, pain is nevertheless valuable.

Some diseases have the effect of dulling or disabling the pain mechanism. People who feel no pain have to be taught to regularly and frequently check their bodies for signs of injury, and effectively train themselves to consciously make self-protective decisions most of us learn largely unconsciously as we grow up. Any failure to do so can be as much a threat to their lives as the disease itself.

The development of a powerful urge to mate is perhaps the best known of the instincts favoured by evolution, as clearly success in finding a mate and reproducing is central to passing on any genetic instincts at all, but even the sex instinct does not have the urgency or immediacy of the instinct to avoid pain, or escape it once it begins.

At its simplest level, therefore, torture harnesses this motivation by rendering a human helpless and leaving them only one escape from the pain: to display behaviour demanded by the torturer.


Some have objected that the photographs from Iraq do not show "torture", because they do not show the infliction of intense pain: no electrodes, and no blades. They are wrong. To be chained into what appears to be only an uncomfortable stance (for the mere moment captured by the camera) becomes excruciating after hours of endurance. It is a technique much favoured by state torturers, as it leaves little physical trace.

But that is not the complete answer to this objection. Torture aims to exert the torturer's will over the victim's. The infliction (or threat) of pain may motivate compliance, but the will of the victim may still stand out against this. Torture therefore relies at least as much, and sometimes entirely, on breaking down that will through humiliation.

Victims face a regime of absolute control. The Iraqi prisoners are shown naked, and their nakedness is emphasised by mockery. One is pictured on a leash. Another appears awkwardly shackled to railings, with a pair of women's knickers pulled over his head.

These techniques all rely on the ritualised intensification of existing social inequalities and power relationships.

Clothing is socially significant: from the uniforms of police to the 'power dressing' of upper middle class professionals. Poor clothing publicly signifies low status, and nudity a complete powerlessness associated with infancy. Similarly, women enjoy less social status than men: draping women's underwear over a man's face reduces him. I've yet to hear of a woman similarly humiliated using men's clothing. Leashes are used to control animals, which are barely more than commodities in our society: to hold a human on a leash symbolises such a relationship.

The key point is that these symbols rely on the victim's acute and nuanced, conscious and unconscious awareness of existing social rules. They manipulate these to create the greatest possible gap between the status of the torturer and that of the victim. The mechanisms of social differentiation are refined and made extreme, but are solidly based on that material reality in society. Sustained over days or weeks, such treatment can undermine an individual's sense of their own status, and enhance that of the torturer, making the victim's eventual submission ever more likely.

Social aims

So far, we have looked at the psychology of the victim: but what of the torturers?

At the macro-level, torture is simply one of a range of techniques used by ruling classes to maintain power.

As oppressed peoples organise, individuals amongst them may be imprisoned and forced to reveal politically and militarily useful intelligence about their organisations. This immediate use has been the subject of much debate in many specific circumstances: in Ireland, in Israel, in Guantanamo Bay, and in bourgeois democracies and dictatorships alike around the world.

After a little research, one also begins to realise just how much information is publicly available about torture. Though political strategies vary, it is not uncommon for the use of torture to be tacitly admitted by national governments or their occupying forces abroad. This is because it implicitly creates a threat of torture, which serves as a deterrent against revolt, and particularly against accepting roles of individual leadership in pre-revolutionary struggle.

I enjoy the current good fortune of being a western European national who is a member of a legal party under a relatively liberal domestic regime. I do not know, I cannot know, whether I would have the courage so many of our comrades abroad show, working in the knowledge of their fate if imprisoned: I can only hope I would. And to many (myself included) the threat of death is less frightening than the threat of torture - Amnesty International document many cases of victims killing themselves, or trying to kill themselves, to escape further pain. A little public fear of torture is useful pour encourager les autres.

The torturer

The motives of the ruling classes are clear, then. But individual torturers are not drawn from the ruling classes, any more than rank and file soldiers or police are. They do not have the same immediate interest in the preservation of the current class system, as they are often drawn from the same class as their victims. What motivates them?

This is the question on which most of the bourgeois liberal analysis I have read focuses. It begins from the emotions of the individual writers: they (and I) find it impossible to imagine pulling a lever to run electrical charges through the body of a naked, desperate, helpless fellow human being. How can people do it? And another question which is popularly asked: what do they tell their children they do for a living?

We must return, once again, to the realities of human society. The professional torturer, the specialist, is, above all, part of the state: part of what Lenin famously called the "bodies of armed men". However, the forces of the state are not undifferentiated. Most are men and women from largely working class backgrounds. They enjoy reasonable rewards, but their lives are only marginally better than those of their fellows, and they are not highly conscious of the role they play, beyond the basic propaganda against working class collectivism channelled through their organisations.

There is a special caste, though, which includes the spies and intelligence officers, the infiltrators and state provocateurs, and the torturers. These people have a clearer understanding of their role, and the nature of the society in which they live and work. Theirs is, in that sense, a dirtier job, and more richly rewarded. They can be drawn from either the middle or working classes, and some are picked out of the broader arms of the state for this kind of 'special service', having exhibited some kind of aptitude and appetite for the role.

What light does this shed on the question, 'How can people do it?' What makes 'doing it' unimaginable is empathy - not merely the ability, but the involuntary tendency to put ourselves in the position of those people we interact with. Again, understanding empathy begins in the real world. It developed as a useful evolutionary and social skill, as we do better in the world if we can understand the feelings of others, and therefore predict their reactions and plan our own accordingly. For a trivial flavour of its evolved state, it is the tendency which makes us cringe with embarrassment on someone else's behalf - how many people comment that they found the BBC series The office, featuring the egregious boss David Brent, 'difficult to watch'?

Empathy in turn relies on identification. The more we consider people to be like ourselves, the more we empathise. The working class is a revolutionary class precisely because capitalism brought oppressed people together into communities and workplaces in which their common problems and interests were obvious: they identified with each other, and became conscious of their class.

The state therefore seeks to undermine this sense of identification between its own forces and the peoples they control. It divides soldiers from the working class communities from which most of them came. It sets the policeman against worker. It undermines consciousness of both common humanity and class, and so weakens identification and empathy.

The state becomes 'us', the oppressed 'them'. The professional torturer takes this to an extreme. The victim is reduced to a condition which is barely considered human. Above, I explained how the humiliation in torture served to weaken the victim. Here is its other role: it protects the torturer. The sustained use of ritualised symbols of extreme separation in social status undermines empathy, making torture possible.

However, the process is not achieved without psychological harm. The state bases its work on a lie: the denial of common humanity which makes not only torture but all class society possible. A belief in this lie produces negative effects: alienation first from humanity, and then from reality. It can lead to breakdown, suicide or ever more anger and confusion channelled into the abuse of the victims.

So much for the professional torturer. But pictures of Lynndie England raise another question: how can 'ordinary' human beings behave in such a way?

The essential cause remains the same. During foreign occupation, where torturer and victim are separated by language, culture, appearance and beliefs, the necessary breakdown of empathy is all the more easily achieved. A coalition leadership which speaks of "cleaning out rats' nests of Iraqi dissidents" further reinforces this - the "dissidents" are vermin. And as the gap is widened between GI and Iraqi, the psychological need for solidarity between GI and GI is reinforced. Whistle-blowing and humanitarian intervention become difficult. The abuse of 'them' is mutually reinforced. The psychological importance of at least remaining one of 'us', and so not wholly isolated in a strange land, dominates.

In this situation, the unofficial, deniable, but nevertheless deliberate nudge the ruling classes feed through their state mechanism to the forces on the ground to 'do what is necessary' is all that is required. If it becomes convenient for them, though, the ruling classes are as happy to sacrifice their own pawns as they were to sacrifice the Iraqis - as Lynndie England is now discovering.