I am often asked my opinion about the causes of America’s current geopolitical ills. Why do we face so many serious problems at the same time? The previous note in this series describes how we have changed, perhaps in ways so that the Constitution no long fits.
Another possible reason is our alienation from each other, a failure to see ourselves as fellows in a great joint venture. Just as unit cohesion makes possible survival on the battlefield, strong social cohesion allows — makes possible if not certain — a society to survive what would otherwise be overwhelming threats. Solon’s reforms gave Athens such social cohesion to achieve such greatness that they remain a beacon for us millennia later. Alienation of individuals from the group disrupts cohesion, and can prove fatal to the group in times of great stress.
This might explain the splintering of the American polity, our inability — as we have done so well in the past — to respond collectively to serious threats.
What is alienation?
Here is the Wikipedia entry on alienation (lightly edited, all links removed):
In sociology and critical social theory, alienation refers to an individual’s estrangement from traditional community and others in general. … the atomism of modern society means that individuals have shallower relations with other people than they would normally. This, it is argued, leads to difficulties in understanding and adapting to each other’s uniqueness (see normlessness).
… Many sociologists of the late 19th and early 20th century were concerned about alienating effects of modernization.
- German sociologists Georg Simmel and Ferdinand Tönnies have written rather critical works on individualization and urbanization.
- Simmel’s “Philosophy of Money” describes how relationships become more and more mediated through money.
- Tönnies’ “Community and Society” is about the loss of primary relationships such as family bonds in favour of goal oriented secondary relationships.
- The American sociologist C. Wright Mills conducted a major study of alienation in modern society with “White Collar” (1951) describing how modern consumption-capitalism have shaped a society where you have to sell your personality in addition to your work.
For a more poetic description of alienation:
The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant. The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line. The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history. Nothing follows from what has gone before. He is constantly surprised. He cannot predict his own reaction to events. He is constantly being overtaken by events. A condition of breathlessness and dazzlement surrounds him.
This is a summary of Georges Poulet‘s analysis in The Interior Distance (1959) of the French playwright Marivaux, written by one of the first and best writers of postmodern fiction, Donald Barthelme, from his short story “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning” (1968).
For a deep understanding of our situation I suggest reading Allan Bloom (see chapter III) and Christopher Lasch. Lasch discusses alienation in a clear and understandable way in his book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1991). Men of action will find this uninteresting. Unfortunately this analysis, like that of Bloom is diagnostic but not prescriptive. We will have to find our own solution to these maladies of our collective psyche; analysis probably helps little in such matters.
Here is an excerpt that give the flavor of his analysis…
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In general, we seem to combine a sense of decadence in society — as evidenced by the concept of alienation, which, supported by a new interest in the early Marx, has never enjoyed more esteem — with a technological utopianism. In our ways of thinking about the future there are contradictions which, if we were willing to consider them openly, might call for some effort toward complementarity. But they lie, as a rule, too deep.”
The Therapeutic Sensibility
The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security. Even the radicalism of the sixties served, for many of those who embraced it for personal rather than political reasons, not as a substitute religion but as a form of therapy. Radical politics filled empty lives, provided a sense of meaning and purpose.
In her memoir of the Weathermen, Susan Stern described their attraction in language that owes more to psychiatry and medicine than to religion. When she tried to evoke her state of mind during the 1968 demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, she wrote instead about the state of her health. “I felt good. I could feel my body supple and strong and slim, and ready to run miles, and my legs moving sure and swift under me.” A few pages later, she says: “I felt real.” Repeatedly she explains that association with important people made her feel important. “I felt I was part of a vast network of intense, exciting and brilliant people.” When the leaders she idealized disappointed her, as they always did, she looked for new heroes to take their place, hoping to warm herself in their “brilliance” and to overcome her feeling of insignificance.
… They imagined, according to Tocqueville, that “their whole destiny is in their own hands.” Social conditions in the United States, Tocqueville wrote, severed the tie that formerly united one generation to another. ” The woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after, no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself.” …
Culture and Personality
Narcissism, as I had come to understand it, was not just another name for selfishness. Nor was The Culture of Narcissism conceived of as a book about the “me decade” or the retreat from the political activism of the sixties. It grew out of an earlier study of the American family, Haven in a Heartless World, which had led me to the conclusion that the family’s importance in our society had been steadily declining over a period of more than a hundred years. Schools, peer groups, mass media, and the “helping professions” had challenged parental authority and taken over many of the family’s child-rearing functions. I reasoned that changes of this magnitude, in an institution of such fundamental importance, were likely to have far-reaching psychological repercussions. The Culture of Narcissism was an attempt to analyze those repercussions — to explore the psychological dimension of long-term shifts in the structure of cultural authority.
My underlying assumptions were drawn from a tradition of studies, carried out for the most part by cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and psychoanalysts, that concerned themselves with the effect of culture on personality. Scholars in this tradition argued that every culture works out distinctive patterns of child-rearing and socialization, which have the effect of producing a distinctive personality type suited to the requirements of that culture.
Observers of American culture, having learned to apply analytical techniques derived from the study of simpler societies to more complex social organisms, believed that an “inner-directed” personality type was gradually giving way to a peer-oriented “other‐directed” type, in the terms made familiar by David Riesman. Riesman ‘s influential book The Lonely Crowd (1950) served as one of the models for the kind of investigation I was trying to conduct.
A number of other observers had come to similar conclusions about the direction of personality change. They spoke of a collapse of “impulse controls,” the “decline of the superego,” and the growing influence of peer groups. Psychiatrists, moreover, described a shift in the pattern of the symptoms displayed by their patients. The classic neuroses treated by Freud, they said, were giving way to narcissistic personality disorders. “You used to see people coming in with hand-washing compulsions, phobias, and familiar neuroses,” Sheldon Bach reported in 1976. “Now you see mostly narcissists.”
If these observations were to be taken seriously, the upshot, it seemed to me, was not that American society was “sick” or that Americans were all candidates for a mental asylum but that normal people now displayed many of the same personality traits that appeared, in more extreme form, in pathological narcissism.
Freud always stressed the continuity between the normal and the abnormal, and it therefore seemed reasonable, to a Freudian, to expect that clinical descriptions of narcissistic disorders would tell us something about the typical personality structure in a society dominated by large bureaucratic organizations and mass media, in which families no longer played an important role in the transmission of culture and people accordingly had little sense of connection to the past.
I was struck by evidence, presented in several studies of business corporations, to the effect that professional advancement had come to depend less on craftsmanship or loyalty to the firm than on “visibility,” “momentum,” personal charm, and impression management. The dense interpersonal environment of modern bureaucracy appeared to elicit and reward a narcissistic response — an anxious concern with the impression one made on others, a tendency to treat others as a mirror of the self.
The proliferation of visual and auditory images in a “society of the spectacle,” as it has been described, encouraged a similar kind of preoccupation with the self. People responded to others as if their actions were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time. The prevailing social conditions thus brought out narcissistic personality traits that were present, in varying degrees, in everyone a certain protective shallowness, a fear of binding commitments, a willingness to pull up roots whenever the need arose, a desire to keep one’s options open, a dislike of depending on anyone, an incapacity for loyalty or gratitude.
Narcissists may have paid more attention to their own needs than to those of others, but self-love and self-aggrandizement did not impress me as their most important characteristics. These qualities implied a strong, stable sense of selfhood, whereas narcissists suffered from a feeling of inauthenticity and inner emptiness. They found it difficult to make connection with the world. At its most extreme, their condition approximated that of Kaspar Hauser, the nineteenth-century German foundling raised in solitary confinement, whose “impoverished relations with his cultural environment,” according to the psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich, left him with a feeling of being utterly at life’s mercy. …
Twentieth-century Gnosticism and the New Age Movement
Even our deeply rooted, misplaced faith in technology does not fully describe modern culture. What remains to be explained is how an exaggerated respect for technology can coexist with a revival of ancient superstitions, a belief in reincarnation, a growing fascination with the occult, and the bizarre forms of spirituality associated with the New Age movement. A widespread revolt against reason is as much a feature of our world as our faith in science and technology.
Archaic myths and superstitions have reappeared in the very heart of the most modern, scientifically enlightened, and progressive nations in the world. The coexistence of advanced technology and primitive spirituality suggests that both are rooted in social conditions that make it increasingly difficult for people to accept the reality of sorrow, loss, aging, and death-to live with limits, in short. The anxieties peculiar to the modern world seem to have intensified old mechanisms of denial.
New Age spirituality, no less than technological utopianism, is rooted in primary narcissism. If the technological fantasy seeks to restore the infantile illusion of self-sufficiency, the New Age movement seeks to restore the illusion of symbiosis, a feeling of absolute oneness with the world. Instead of dreaming of the imposition of human will on the intractable world of matter, the New Age movement, which revives themes found in ancient Gnosticism, simply denies the reality of the material world. By treating matter essentially as an illusion, it removes every obstacle to the re-creation of a primary sense of wholeness and equilibrium — the return to Nirvana.
… The New Age movement is to Gnosticism what fundamentalism is to Christianity — a literal restatement of ideas whose original value lay in their imaginative understanding of human life and the psychology of religious experience.
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Other posts in this series about America
How we lost it and how we can recover it:
- Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
- Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
- A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
- Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
- The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
- We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
- Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
- Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
- Fixing America: elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
- Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
- Fixing America: solutions — elections, revolt, passivity, 18 August 2008
- The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.