THE MASS PSYCHOLOGY OF MISERY - John Zerzan
Taken from "Future Primitive and Other Essays", published by Autonomedia
in conjunction with Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed.
Anti-Copyright 1994: may be freely pirated and quoted. The author and
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Quite a while ago, just before the upheavals of the '60s-shifts that
have not ceased, but have been forced in less direct, less public
directions-Marcuse in his One-Dimensional Man, described a populace
characterized by flattened personality, satisfied and content. With the
pervasive anguish of today, who could be so described? Therein lies a
deep, if inchoate critique.
Much theorizing has announced the erosion of individuality's last
remnants; but if this were so, if society now consists of the thoroughly
homogenized and domesticated, how can there remain the enduring tension
which must account for such levels of pain and loss? More and more
people I have known have cracked up. It's going on to a staggering
degree, in a context of generalized, severe emotional disease-ease.
Marx predicted, erroneously, that a deepening material immiseration
would lead to revolt and to capital's downfall. Might it not be that an
increasing psychic suffering is itself leading to the reopening of
revolt-indeed, that this may even be the last hope of resistance?
And yet it is obvious that "mere" suffering is no guarantee of anything.
"Desire does not 'want' revolution, it is revolutionary in its own
right," as Deleuze and Guattari pointed out, while further on in
Anti-Oedipus, remembering fascism, noting that people have desired
against their own interests, and that tolerance of humiliation and
enslavement remains widespread.
We know that behind psychic repression and avoidance stands social
repression, even as massive denial shows at least some signs of giving
way to a necessary confrontation with reality in all of its dimensions.
Awareness of the social must not mean ignoring the personal, for that
would only repeat, in its own terms, the main error of psychology. If in
the nightmare of today each of us has his or her fears and limitations,
there is no liberating route that forgets the primacy of the whole,
including how that whole exists in each of us.
Stress, loneliness, depression, boredom-the madness of everyday life.
Ever-greater levels of sadness, implying a recognition, on the visceral
level at least, that things could be different. How much joy is there
left in the technological society, this field of alienation and anxiety?
Mental health epidemiologists suspect that no more than twenty percent
of us are free of psychopathological symptoms. Thus we act out a
"pathology of normalcy" marked by the chronic psychic impoverishment of
a qualitatively unhealthy society.
Arthur Barsky's Worried Sick (1988) diagnoses an American condition
where, despite all the medical "advances," the population has never felt
such a "constant need for medical care." The crisis of the family and of
personal life in general sees to it that the pursuit of health, and
emotional health in particular, has reached truly industrial
proportions. A work-life increasingly toxic, in every sense of the word,
joins with the disintegration of the family to fuel the soaring growth
of the corporate industrial health machine. But for a public in its
misery dramatically more interested in health care than ever before, the
dominant model of medical care is clearly only part of the problem, not
its solution. Thus Thomas Bittker writes of "The Industrialization of
American Psychiatry" (American Journal of Psychiatry, February 1985) and
Gina Kolata discusses how much distrust of doctors exists, as medicine
is seen as just another business (New York Times, February 20, 1990).
The mental disorder of going along with things as they are is now
treated almost entirely by biochemicals, to reduce the individual's
consciousness of socially induced anguish, Tranquilizers are now the
world's most widely prescribed drugs, and anti-depressants set record
sales as well. Temporary relief-despite side-effects and addictive
properties-is easily obtained, while we are all ground down a little
more. The burden of simply getting by is "Why All Those People Feel They
Never Have Any Time," according to Trish Hall (New York Times, January
2, 1988), who concluded that 'everybody just seems to feel worn out" by
An October '89 Gallup poll found that stress-related illness is becoming
the leading hazard in the nation's workplaces, and a month later an
almost five-fold increase in California stress-related disability claims
was reported to have occurred between 1982 and 1986. More recent figures
estimate that almost two-thirds of new cases in employee assistance
programs represent psychiatric or stress symptoms. In his Modern Madness
(1986), Douglas La Bier asked, "What is it about work today that can
cause such harm?"
Part of the answer is found in a growing literature that reveals the
Information Age "office of tomorrow" to be no better than the sweatshop
of yesteryear. In fact, computerization introduces a neo-Taylorist
monitoring of work that surpasses all earlier management control
techniques. The "technological whip" now increasingly held over
white-collar workers prompted Curt Supplee, in a January '90 Washington
Post article, to judge, "We have seen the future, and it hurts." A few
months earlier Sue Miller wrote in the Baltimore Evening Sun of another
part of the job burnout picture, referring to a national clinical
psychology study that determined that no less than a staggering 93
percent of American women "are caught up in a blues epidemic."
Meanwhile, the suicide and homicide rates are rising in the U.S. and
eighty percent of the populace admit to having at least thought of
suicide. Teenage suicide has risen enormously in the past three decades,
and the number of teens locked up in mental wards has soared since 1970.
So very many ways to gauge the pain: serious obesity among children has
increased more than fifty percent in the last fifteen to twenty years;
severe eating disorders (bulimia and anorexia) among college women are
now relatively common; sexual dysfunction is widespread; the incidence
of panic and anxiety attacks is rising to the point of possibly
overtaking depression as our most general psychological malady;
isolation and a sense of meaninglessness continue to make even absurd
cults and IV evangelism seem attractive to many.
The litany of cultural symptomatics is virtually endless. Despite its
generally escapist function, even much of contemporary film reflects the
malaise; see Robert Phillip Kolker's A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn,
Kubrick, Scorsese. Spielberg, Altman, for example. And many recent
novels are even more unflinching in their depiction of the desolation
_and degradation of society, and the burnout of youth in particular,
e.g. Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero, Fred Pfail's Goodman 2020, and
The Knockout Artist by Harry Crews, to mention just a few.
In this context of immiseration, what is happening to prevailing values
and mores is of signal interest in further situating our "mass
psychology" and its significance. There are plenty of signs that the
demand for "instant gratification" is more and more insistent, bringing
with it outraged lamentations from both left and right and a further
corrosion of the structure of repression.
Credit card fraud, chiefly the deliberate running up of bills, reached
the billion-and-a-half-dollar level in 1988 as the personal bankruptcy
solution to debt, which doubled between 1980 and 1990. Defaults on
federal student loans more than quadrupled from 1983 to 1989.
In November '89, in a totally unprecedented action, the U.S. Navy was
forced to suspend operations world-wide for 48 hours owing to a rash of
accidents involving deaths and injuries over the preceding three weeks.
A total safety review was involved in the moratorium, which renewed
discussion of drug abuse, absenteeism, unqualified personnel, and other
problems threatening the Navy's very capacity to function.
Meanwhile, levels of employee theft reach ever higher levels. In 1989
the Dallas Police Department reported a 29 percent increase in retail
shrinkage over the previous five years, and a national survey conducted
by London House said 62 percent of fast-food employees admitted stealing
from employers. In early 1990 the FBI disclosed that shoplifting was up
35 percent since 1984, cutting heavily into retail profits.
November 1988 broke a forty-year mark for low voter turnout, continuing
a downward direction in electoral participation that has plagued
presidential elections since 1960. Average college entrance exam (SAT)
scores declined throughout the '70s and early '80s, then rebounded very
slightly, and in 1988 continued to fall. At the beginning of the '80s
Arthur Levin's portrait of college students, When Dreams and Heroes
Died, recounted "a generalized cynicism and lack of trust," while at the
end of the decade Robert Nisbet's The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy
in North America decried the disastrous effects that the younger
generation's attitude of "hanging loose" was having on the system.
George F. Will, for his part, reminded us all that social arrangements,
including the authority of the government, rest "on a willingness of the
public to believe in them," and Harvard economist Harvey Liebenstein's
Inside the Firm echoed him in stressing that companies must depend on
the kind of work their employees want to do.
The nation's high schools now graduate barely seventy percent of
students who enter as freshman, despite massive focus on the dropout
rate problem. As Michael de Courcy Hinds put it (New York Times,
February 17, 1990), "U.S. educators are trying almost anything to keep
children in school," while an even more fundamental phenomenon is the
rising number of people of all ages unwilling to learn to read and
write. David Harman (Illiteracy: A National Dilemma, 1987) gave voice to
how baffling the situation is, asking why has the acquisition of such
skills, "seemingly so simple, been so evasive?"
The answer may be that illiteracy, like schooling, is increasingly seen
to be valued merely for its contribution to the workplace. The refusal
of literacy is but another sign of a deep turn-off from the system, part
of the spreading disaffection. In mid-1988 a Hooper survey indicated
that work now ranks eighth out of ten on a scale of important
satisfactions in life, and 1989 showed the lowest annual productivity
growth since the 1981-83 recession. The drug "epidemic," which cost the
government almost $25 billion to combat in the '80s, threatens society
most acutely at the level of the refusal of work and sacrifice. There is
no "war on drugs" that can touch the situation while at the same time
defending this landscape of pain and false values. The need for escape
grows stronger and the sick social order feels consequent desertion, the
steady corrosion of all that holds it up.
Unfortunately, the biggest "escape" of all is one that serves, in the
main, to preserve the distorted present: what Sennett has called "the
increasing importance of psychology in bourgeois life." This includes
the extraordinary proliferation of new kinds of therapy since the '60s,
and behind this phenomenon the rise of psychology as the predominant
religion. In the Psychological Society the individual sees himself as a
problem. This ideology constitutes a pre-eminent social imprisonment,
because it denies the social; psychology refuses to consider that
society as a whole shares fundamental responsibility for the conditions
produced in every human being.
The ramifications of this ideology can be seen on all sides For
instance, the advice to those besieged by work stress to "take a deep
breath, laugh, walk it off," etc. Or the moralizing exhortations to
recycle, as if a personal ethics of consumption is a real answer to the
global eco-crisis caused by industrial production. Or the 1990
California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem as a solution to the major
social breakdown in that state.
At the very center of contemporary life, this outlook legitimates
alienation, loneliness, despair, and anxiety. because it cannot see the
context for our malaise. It privatizes distress, and suggests that only
non-social responses are attainable. This "bottomless fraud of mere
inwardness," in Adorno's words, pervades every aspect of American life,
mystifying experience and thus perpetuating oppression.
The widespread allegiance to a therapeutic world view constitutes a
culture tyrannized by the therapeutic in which, in the name of mental
health, we are getting mental disease. With the expanding influence of
behavioral experts, powerlessness and estrangement expand as well;
modern life must be interpreted for us by the new expertise and its
Gail Sheehy's Passages (1977), for example, considers life developments
without reference to any social or historical context, thereby vitiating
her concern for the "free and autonomous self." Arlie Russell
Hochschild's Managed Heart (1983) focuses on the "commercialization of
human feelings" in an increasingly service-sector economy, and manages
to avoid any questioning of the totality by remaining ignorant of the
fact of class society and the unhappiness it produces. When Society
Becomes an Addict (1987) is Anne Wilson Schaef's completely incoherent
attempt to deny, despite the title, the existence of society, by dealing
strictly with the interpersonal. And these books are among the least
escapist of the avalanche of "how-to" therapy books inundating the
bookstores and supermarkets.
It is clear that psychology is part of the absence of community or
solidarity, and of the accelerating social disintegration. The emphasis
is on changing one's personality, and avoiding at all costs the facts of
bureaucratic consumer capitalism and its meaning to our lives and
consciousness. Consider Samuel Klarreich's Stress Solution (1988): "…1
believe that we can largely determine what will be stressful. and how
much it will interfere with our lives, by the views we uphold
irrespective of what goes on in the workplace." Under the sign of
productivity, the citizen is now trained as a lifelong inmate of an
industrial world, a condition, as Ivan Illich noted, not unrelated to
the fact that everyone tends toward the condition of therapy's patient,
or at least tends to accept its world-view.
In the Psychological Society, social conflicts of all kinds are
automatically shifted to the level of psychic problems, in order that
they can be charged to individuals as private matters. Schooling
produces near-universal resistance, which is classified, for example, as
"hyperkinesis" and dealt with by drugs and/or psychiatric ideology.
Rather than recognize the child's protest, his or her life is invaded
still further, to ensure that no one eludes the therapeutic net.
It is clear that a retreat from the social, based largely on the
experience of defeat and consequent resignation, promotes the personal
as the only possible terrain of authenticity. A desperate denizen of the
"singles world" is quoted by Louise Banikow: "My ambition is wholly
personal now. All I want to do is fall in love." But the demand for
fulfilment, however circumscribed by psychology, is that of a ravening
hunger and a level of suffering that threaten to burst the bonds of the
prescribed inner world. As noted above, indifference to authority,
distrust of institutions, and a spreading nihilism mean that the
therapeutic can neither satisfy the individual nor ultimately safeguard
the social order. Toynbee noted that a decadent culture furthers the
rise of a new church that extends hope to the proletariat while
servicing only the needs of the ruling class. Perhaps sooner than later
People will begin to realize that psychology is this Church, Which may
be the reason why so many voices of therapy now Counsel their flocks
against "unrealistic expectations" of what life could be.
For over half a century the regulative, hierarchical needs of a
bureaucratic-consumerist system have sought modern means of control and
prediction. The same consolatory ideology of the psychological outlook,
in which the self is the over-arching form of reality, has served these
control needs and owes most of its assumptions to Sigmund Freud.
For Freud and his Wagnerian theory of warring instincts and the
arbitrary division of the self into id, ego and superego, the passions
of the individual were primordial and dangerous. The work of
civilization was to check and harness them. The whole edifice of
psychoanalysis, Freud said, is based upon the theory of necessary
repression; domination is obviously assisted by this view. That human
culture is established only by means of suffering, that constant
renunciation of desire is inevitable for continuance of civilization,
that work is sustained by the energy of stifled love-all this is
required by the "natural aggressiveness" of "human nature," the latter
an eternal and universal fact, of course.
Understanding fully the deforming force of all this repression, Freud
considered it likely that neurosis has come to characterize all of
humanity. Despite his growing fear of fascism after World War 1, he
nonetheless contributed to its growth by justifying the renunciation of
happiness. Reich referred to Freud and Hitler with some bitterness,
observing that "a few years later, a pathological genius-making the best
of ignorance and fear of happiness-brought Europe to the verge of
destruction with the slogan of 'heroic renunciation'."
With the Oedipus complex, inescapable source of guilt and repression, we
see Freud again as the consummate Hobbesian. This universal condition is
the vehicle whereby self-imposed taboos are learned via the (male)
childhood' experience of fear of the father and lust for the mother. It
is based on Freud's reactionary fairy tale of a primal horde dominated
by a powerful father who possessed all available women and who was
killed and devoured by his sons. This was ludicrous anthropology even
when penned, and fully exhibits one of Freud's most basic errors, that
of equating society with civilization. There is now convincing evidence
that precivilized life was a time of non-dominance and equality,
certainly not the bizarre patriarchy Freud provided as origin of most of
our sense of guilt and shame. He remained convinced of the
inescapability of the Oedipal background, and the central validity of
both the Oedipal complex and of guilt itself for the interests of
Freud considered psychic life as shut in on itself, uninfluenced by
society. This premise leads to a deterministic view of childhood and
even infancy, along with such judgements as "the fear of becoming poor
is derived from regressive anal eroticism, Consider his Psychopathology
of Everyday Life, and its ten editions between 1904 and 1924 to which
new examples of "slips," or unintended revelatory usages of words, were
continually added. We do not find a single instance, despite the
upheavals of many of those years in and near Austria, of Freud detecting
a "slip" that related to fear of revolution on the part of this
bourgeois subjects, or even of any day-to-day social fears, such as
related to strikes, insubordination, or the like. It seems more than
likely that unrepressed slips concerning such matters were simple
screened Out as unimportant to his universalist, ahistorical views.
Also worth noting is Freud's "discovery" of the death instinct In his
deepening pessimism, he countered Eros, the life instinct with Thanatos,
a craving for death and destruction, as fundamental and ineradicable a
part of the species as Striving for life. The aim of all life is death,"
simply put (1920). While it may be pedestrian to note that this
discovery was accompanied by the mass carnage of World War 1, an
increasingly unhappy marriage, and the onset of cancer of the jaw, there
is no mistaking the service this dystopian metaphysics performs in
justifying authority. The assumption of the death instinct-that
aggression, hatred, and fear will always be with us-militates against
the idea that liberation is possible. In later decades, the death
instinct-oriented work of Melanie Klein flourished in English ruling
circles precisely because of its emphasis on social restraints in
limiting aggressiveness. Today's leading neo-Freudian, Lacan, also seems
to see suffering and domination as inevitable; specifically, he holds
that patriarchy is a law of nature.
Marcuse, Norman O. Brown and others have re-theorized Freud in a radical
direction by taking his ideas as descriptive rather than prescriptive,
and there is a limited plausibility to an orientation that takes his
dark views as valid only with respect to alienated life, rather than to
any and all imaginable social worlds. There are even many Freudian
feminists; their efforts to apply psychoanalytic dogma to the oppression
of women, however, appear even more contrived.
Freud did identify the "female principle" as closer to nature, less
sublimated, less diffused through repression than that of the male. But
true to his overall values, he located an essential advance in
civilization in the victory of male intellectuality over womanly
sensuality. What is saddest about the various attempts to reappropriate
Freud is the absence of a critique of civilization: his entire work is
predicated on the acceptance of civilization as highest value. And basic
in a methodological sense, regarding those who would merely reorient the
Freudian edifice, is Foucault's warning that the will to any system "is
to extend our participation in the present system."
In the area of gender difference, Freud straightforwardly affirmed the
basic inferiority of the female. His view of women as castrated men is a
case of biological determinism: anatomically they are simply less, and
condemned by this to masochism and penis envy.
I make no pretense to completeness or depth in this brief look at Freud,
but it should be already obvious how false was his disclaimer (New
Introductory Lectures, 1933) that Freudianism posits any values beyond
those inherent in "objective" science. And to this fundamental failing
could be added the arbitrary nature of virtually all of his philosophy.
Divorced as it pointedly is from gross social reality-further examples
are legion, but seduction theory comes to mind, in which he declared
that sexual abuse is, most importantly, fantasy-one Freudian inference
could just as plausibly be replaced by a different one. Overall, we
encounter, in the summary of Frederick Crews, "a doctrine plagued by
mechanism, reification, and arbitrary universalism."
On the level of treatment, by his own accounts, Freud never was able to
permanently cure a single patient, and psychoanalysis has proven no more
effective since. In 1984 the National Institute of Mental Health
estimated that over forty million Americans are mentally ill, while a
study by Regier, Boyd et al. (Archives of General Psychiatry, November
1988) showed that fifteen percent of the adult population had a
"psychiatric disorder." One obvious dimension of this worsening
situation, in Joel Kovel's words, is the contemporary family, which "has
fallen into a morass of permanent crisis, as indicated by the endless
stream of emotionally disabled individuals it turns over to the mental
If alienation is the essence of all psychiatric conditions, Psychology
is the study of the alienated, but lacks the awareness that this is so.
The effect of the total society, in which the individual can no longer
recognize himself or herself, by the canons of Freud and the
Psychological Society, is seen as irrelevant to diagnosis and treatment.
Thus psychiatry appropriates disabling pain and frustration, redefines
them as illnesses and, in some cases, is able to suppress the symptoms.
Meanwhile, a morbid world continues its estranging technological
rationality that excludes any continuously spontaneous, affective life:
the person is subjected to a discipline designed, at the expense of the
sensuous, to make him or her an instrument of production.
Mental illness is primarily an unconscious escape from this design, a
form of passive resistance. R.D. Laing spoke of schizophrenia as a
psychic numbing which feigns a kind of death to preserve something of
one's inner aliveness. The representative schizophrenic is around 20, at
the point of culmination of the long period of socialization which has
prepared him to take up his role in the workplace. He is not "adequate"
to this destiny. Historically, it is noteworthy that schizophrenia is
very closely related to industrialism, as Torrey shows convincingly in
his Schizophrenia and Civilization (1980).
In recent years Szasz, Foucault, Goffman, and others have called
attention to the ideological preconceptions through which "mental
illness" is seen. "Objective" language cloaks cultural biases, as in the
case, for instance, of sexual "disorders": in the 19th century
masturbation was treated as a disease, and it has only been within the
past twenty years that the psychological establishment declassified
homosexuality as illness.
And it has long been transparent that there is a class component to the
origins and treatment of mental illness. Not only is what is called
"eccentric" among the rich often termed psychiatric disorder-and treated
quite differently among the poor, but many studies since Hollingshead
and Redlich's Social Class and Mental Illness (1958) have demonstrated
how much more likely are the poor to become emotionally disabled. Roy
Porter observed that because it imagines power, madness is both
impotence and omnipotence, which serves as a reminder that due to the
influence of alienation, powerlessness, and poverty, women are more
often driven to breakdown than men. Society makes us all feel
manipulated and thus mistrustful: "paranoid," and who could not be
depressed? The gap between the alleged neutrality and wisdom of the
medical model and the rising levels of pain and disease is widening, the
credibility of the former visibly corroding.
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