5 Ways “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is an Anti-Government Metaphor
By Joe Jarvis - April 21, 2017

Can you imagine being stuck in an insane asylum, when you aren’t really crazy?

That is sometimes what society feels like, living life in this government controlled nut house.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great source of parallels between the abusive nature of government power, and the treatment of those living in an insane asylum.

The book was written by Ken Kesey after he worked in a sanitarium. This post is based mostly off of the play version I saw, which may vary from the movie with Jack Nicholson which I haven’t seen in years, or the book which I read last year. There are spoilers.

In case you don’t know what One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is about, Randle McMurphy had a 5-month prison sentence, but decided to feign insanity in order to spend his time in an asylum instead of prison. The asylum was run by a sadistic nurse named Nurse Ratched.

1. The Administration. Although Nurse Ratched runs the insane asylum, she is not really in charge. Technically, the doctor must sign off on requests, and have the final word in therapy, including shock therapy, and lobotomy. The Doc in charge is actually a pretty nice guy; he connects with McMurphy, signs off on his slutty visitor, and even endorses his idea for a “carnival” in the ward.

But the doctor has an ulcer, 200 patients, and is getting old. He is probably making good money, and only a few years away from comfy retirement. Sure, he might support McMurphy in rhetoric, or at the weekly meetings, but he really can’t be bothered to stick his head on the chopping block for anyone. In the end, he agrees a lobotomy could be allowed on McMurphy if he exhibits violence for a second time, even though the doctor knows full well the first episode of violence was instigated by Ratched and the orderlies.

The orderlies are the enforcers. Ratched may suggest the lobotomy, and the Doctor must approve it, but the people who will grab either arm and tie McMurphy down on the operating table are the orderlies. And they hate Nurse Ratched too! But they are also sadistic themselves and draw joy from their power to abuse the patients without retaliation. They are able to be bribed at one point to help McMurphy throw a party but quickly revert to supporting Nurse Ratched as soon as they are caught. These are the guys who are just following orders and have their job security to think about.

The one who seeks the most power gets it. Nurse Ratched is a middle management bureaucrat. She has power over the enforcers but still has to appeal to her superiors. Her minions will follow every order, no matter how much they hate it, and her superiors can’t be bothered by the hassle. So really, the shots are not called by the doctor (our elected officials), nor the orderlies (enforcers like police and tax agents), but by the Nurse Ratcheds–think regulators and Directors of government agencies.

2. The Inmates. After the first therapy session, McMurphy can’t believe how Nurse Ratched treats the patients. Of course, she claims everything she does is strictly for therapeutic purposes, but McMurphy can see through her thinly veiled sadism. Ratched brings up the educated inmate Dale’s young wife with big boobs and asks why he was never able to satisfy her. Another inmate chimes in to ask why Dale doesn’t just admit he’s gay. McMurphy intervenes and the meeting is disrupted enough to disperse.

McMurphy then asks Dale why he would take that from her and the others. Dale begins by launching into an energetic defense of Nurse Ratched claiming that everything she does is to help, that she is like a mother, cares deeply for all her patients, and only seeks to transition them into the outside world as fully functioning, normal members of society… “That bitch”. Dale can’t help but realize at the end of his defensive speech that Nurse Ratched really is horrible. What therapeutic benefit could be derived from making a man feel worthless and impotent while talking sexually about his young wife?

And we should never assume that what the government does is for our, or anyone else’s benefit. They don’t care about the poor who they exploit by keeping them in poverty to get votes when they toss them scraps in the form of welfare. The bureaucrats get to control the money, some of which will make it to their friends. Politicians also do favors for political donors, which sometimes amounts to them being put in a Nurse Ratched type position of power. These people are out for themselves and will use any excuse to get more power, and more control. For example the drug war: we aren’t locking non-violent offenders up for their own benefit, it keeps the prison-industrial-complex rich, and the Nurse Ratcheds will make sure of that.

Nurse Ratched goes to work every day and gets a sick pleasure from psychologically torturing the inmates, yet everyone on the outside, and even most on the inside believe that what she is doing is for the inmates’ benefit! McMurphy is the only one who feels powerful enough to call her out on this, knowing that his jail sentence was only 5 months long.

3. Voluntary Inmates. But when this subject comes up, Dale informs McMurphy that most of the patients, including Dale and Billy, are not even committed, meaning they could leave at any time if they chose. McMurphy can’t believe it. “You should be driving around in a convertible picking up girls at your age!” he tells Billy Bibbit. But Billy has been convinced by his mother and Nurse Ratched that he is unfit for normal society, even though the only thing that appears to be wrong with him is his stutter–which happens to get worse when he is being degraded by Nurse Ratched.

Completely sane people have been convinced by Nurse Ratched that they are crazy because they don’t fit into society. Instead of just going out into the world and doing whatever they want to do, they have been brainwashed into thinking they are sick and need to be cured, when they simply don’t fit into the extremely narrow scope of what Nurse Ratched, and all those who allowed a person like her to attain her position, think they should be. Then Nurse Ratched is able to use these people she has damaged to maintain her position.

That is the only way people are governed; if they allow themselves to be governed. You could compare Dale and Billy to people who gladly do their taxes on January 1st, and send off a check to the government with a smile on their face, glad to have done their part for society. And McMurphy would be the person who pays his taxes on April 15th in order to avoid being arrested and caged.

You mean you guys WANT to pay your taxes? I can imagine him saying. But since so many volunteer their money and are gladly robbed, the rest of us are stuck in the asylum with inmates who choose to be there. Since it is easier just to comply with unlawful commands of officers, everyone is stuck in a position where if you exercise your rights, you are more likely to get a bullet than your day in court.


4. But it is a democracy! The ward is said to be a democracy, and the inmates can vote to change things. So when McMurphy wants to watch the World Series, he calls a vote. Everyone in the ward except the silent Chief votes to watch the World Series. But Nurse Ratched informs them the vote must be unanimous, a rule she might have just made up when she realized the inmates’ will would overpower her own. So McMurphy goes over to the silent Chief and miraculously convinces him to raise his hand. They celebrate, the TV is turned on, and they all begin cheering. But for some reason, Nurse Ratched still insists they turn the TV off. McMurphy has a solution: ignore her and cheer louder, which they do, and continue watching the game.

But it is not over for Nurse Ratched. Her authority has been compromised, and now she has to take it out on someone, and prove she has not lost control. She turns her sights on the Chief, who she claims mislead them by not talking for so long. Nurse Ratched calls him a liar and insists his silence all these years has been a clever ruse to get out of therapy. McMurphy can’t watch the abuse, the scene escalates, and McMurphy ends up punching an orderly in the face: the first bout of violence. Both he and the Chief are taken away for electro-shock therapy.

Sure, you can vote any way you want, but if it is not the way the government wants, they will ignore you, or even retaliate against you. That is why the Tea Party gets audited by the IRS, that is why people are beaten by police for exercising their right to protest. It is why Chris Christie shuts down lanes on a bridge to cause traffic in an area that did not vote for him. It is why the federal government withholds funds from states that do not do the bidding of DC and imposes draconian rules on self-sufficient farmers who produce raw milk, or non-GMO food.

When the inmates all gang up, they get their way, and Nurse Ratched cannot do a thing about it. But when she gets them alone as individuals, they no longer have the safety of the group, and can no longer overpower the authorities.

5. Ratched claims to want to protect the other inmates from McMurphy because he is “taking advantage of them”. McMurphy is a gambler and challenges the other inmates to cards, and other bets. In an attempt to turn the other inmates against McMurphy, Ratched asks if they know how much McMurphy has profited off of them. I am sure you know what you have lost individually, she says, but what are his totals? McMurphy has stolen $300 from the other inmates she claims. Profit, stolen, tricked, swindled.

“McMurphy told us from the beginning he was out to take us for all we had,” chimes in an inmate. They knew all along what he was doing, and chose anyway to participate! McMurphy didn’t steal their money, he won bets fair and square.

Nurse Ratched’s reaction is the same reaction the government has to businesses. Even though the government is clearly corrupt and untrustworthy, they step in and claim they want to regulate the market in order to protect us from the greedy businessmen. But the government takes our money by force, while businesses must offer us something in exchange for the money (unless of course they buy off the government, and force our business in the form of subsidies, bailouts, grants, and taxpayer-backed loans).

Ratched doesn’t care about the inmates “being taken” by McMurphy, she attempts to exploit “their losses” in order to gain the upper hand on McMurphy. The same thing happens when McMurphy throws his party and invites two prostitutes, one of whom has sex with Billy Bibbit–his first time. Billy was perfectly happy with this situation, excitedly agreeing weeks earlier in anticipation of the night. But when Nurse Ratched finds out, she says she will have to tell Billy’s mom, and guilt trips Billy for doing this to himself (since she was a prostitute), and those who love him.

When Billy kills himself minutes later, it is not Nurse Ratched who takes the blame, even though it was clearly her actions that led to Billy’s suicide. Instead, she turns the tables on McMurphy, claiming Billy’s death is on his hands because he “coerced” Billy into losing his virginity to a prostitute, the guilt of which Billy couldn’t take. But Billy didn’t feel guilty about having sex, he just could not handle the thought of his mother finding out, which she would never have, if not for Nurse Ratched.

The government tells you drugs will ruin your life. Then they catch an 18-year-old smoking a joint, lock him away in prison, ruin his future, and say, “See! Look what weed did to his life!” Clearly, it was not the weed that ruined his life, it was the prison sentence for a non-violent crime.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of a rebel, who rallies against the state, and attempts to regain control of his own life and help those around him do the same. He seeks to rally the masses to overthrow the minority who rule them sadistically. But the masses are not firmly on his side, or even interested–they sway back and forth depending on how each situation unfolds and benefits or hurts them. But McMurphy is trying to address a deeper problem, not of individual cases of abuse, but a systemic issue that can not be solved by simply choosing a new leader, or shuffling the rules a bit.

McMurphy is the only inmate who tries to fight back against unjust and cruel authority. When he can no longer take the lies and torment from Nurse Ratched, he attempts to choke her, immediately following the suicide of Billy. For this, the state, Nurse Ratched, finally has an excuse to do away with him. Nurse Ratched wanted to be attacked, she was thrilled Billy’s suicide gave her the chance to instigate McMurphy to choke her. In the end, McMurphy, supposed to only have a 5-month sentence, is given a lobotomy.

If you are a rebel, the government wants you to be violent. They know how to deal with violent people. They will taunt you to react with force, and then they will have full sanction to do whatever they want with you.

The Doctor who gives him the lobotomy knows that under normal circumstances, McMurphy is not violent. The orderlies who tie him down know that he is a normal person, probably less violent than them. But Nurse Ratched gets to remove him, in order to form the society to her liking. She is not trying to prepare the inmates for the outside world, she is trying to form her own world. It is the public school that pumps children full of Riddilin because for some reason a 12-year-old can’t sit still for 6 hours a day. It is a government that puts a man in jail for life for creating a successful online marketplace.

Today, the rightful rebels often end up like McMurphy, lobotomized by the Nurse Ratcheds of our system. The government doesn’t care about you, those around you, or even society. It is a cruel machine that goes round and round, exploited by those who understand which cogs will give them the most control. And they will crush anything, or anyone, who stands in their way.

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