a journal of modern society & culture

The Road Not (Yet) Taken II: From Culture Wars to a New History

James Block

—  Every ending must be followed by the new beginning….(This) cultural ice-age….inevitably produced new definitions….(and) a kind of interiorization that a period of outward expansion had largely ignored….When would the new beginning appear? Where…?

                           — Van Wyck Brooks

What we are living through and experiencing now is not the failure of change but the nature of change.

Once the Reaction, as described in Part I, realized that material scarcity could not be enforced as a means to contain post-liberal aspirations because of the system’s dependence on – and growing popular enthusiasm for – rising consumption, the strategic issue emerged: to generate and enforce deprivation under conditions of material abundance.

To marginalize non-acquisitive priorities directed to new levels of self-realization and social collaboration, deprivation would have to be anchored in a psychological framework of unattainable satisfaction and personal deficiency that vitiated the impact of expanding production and consumption.

In the end, its goal was to delegitimize challenges to the liberal foundation in the myth of consent. If individuals with greater economic options could find alternative forms of self-actualization, they could refuse acquiescence to the conformist pursuit of economic and social status as the basis of identity. Recognizing that they had never ceded – nor would they proffer – consent voluntarily, they could demand back the power to shape a system reflecting their own priorities and values. On the other hand, if expanding self-development were debased as the futile and antisocial pursuit of narcissistic self-aggrandizement, compliant dependence on systemic validation and self-sacrifice could again be demanded.

This far-reaching distinction between compensatory self-inflation and genuine selfhood had surfaced with affluence as early as the 1920s. The tragedy of tailoring one’s identity to societal expectations from deep internal insecurities was already the overriding challenge for such literary characters as Jay Gatsby and George Babbitt. These iconic social climbers had recognized the price of giving up on their capacity to chart a life by their own lights: the failure to achieve personal identity and an independent set of priorities sharpened the need for continual external self-bolstering and regret over their complicit conformity that would haunt them thereafter.

This entrapment in a web of conventional markers of self-definition, crystallized as the psychosocial dynamic of other-directedness in David Riesman’s later classic The Lonely Crowd, had by the 1950s become the classic model of late liberal adaptation. Today, as the systemic pressures for self-sacrifice and compensatory distraction have once again replaced the quest for self-realization, the choice sharpens: an untethered and dangerous drive to avenge the loss of one’s humanity and power to realize personal and collective well-being; or reconnection with the inner development of a valid and evolving self able to surmount the Wall of Reaction obstructing the future.

VI. The Age of Narcissism I: The Reactionary Lure

In peeling back to its inception the numerous subsequent layers shrouding the reactionary project (Part I), its explicit determination becomes clear to depress the life-enhancing aspirations for vibrant freedom and sustainable communities. Yet liberal capitalism in order to foster an expanding consumer society had already dismantled its cultivation of the regulative limits to inner indulgence, the “inner, subjective experience” of willing obedience to the constraining demands and sanctions of authority.[1] As a result, authoritative interdictions now “proved helpless to maintain the constraints integral” to even “right and proper demands.”[2] At the same time, substituting a demand for limitations on gratification because of unavoidable productive shortfalls was utterly implausible, and would only fuel contravention.

To sustain the project of retrenchment, appetite would paradoxically have to be accommodated rather than abrogated, but in ways that produced not liberation but unavoidable impediments and frustrations. Ostensibly shifting gears, the reactionary project – secular and surprisingly also religious – would abandon its ethic of legitimate constraint for neoliberal indulgence. Packaging its project of containment in, of all things, the wrappings of limitlessness, it turned to immediate gratifications and salvation on demand, the fetish of ever bigger and better, a politics of dominance and suppression, national omnipotence and unapologetic personal license. It would arouse and exploit the vulnerable cravings – anxieties, deficiencies, longings, dissatisfactions – misshaping release to frame a reactionary cultural politics of excess.

This reframing was not the strategy at the start. For the early neoconservative moralists, joining this cultural tidal wave represented abject surrender to the enemies of moral rectitude and civilization itself. Moreover, this seemed a most foolhardy way to reinstate the popular commitment to limits. As one of the first reactionary analysts to recognize the narcissistic turn in American society, Christopher Lasch, a one-time progressive, in his 1977 essay “The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time” and his influential book The Culture of Narcissism (1978) condemned the eruption of hedonism and instinctual excess as the onset of an age of narcissistic abandon. Bell had already warned of “discretionary social behavior” featuring instinctual release unconstrained by norms or traditions infusing contemporary lifestyles and attitudes. But he had censured this “undermin[ing]” of the “motivational and psychic-reward system” of liberal character utilizing an unwieldy array of literary and religious terms such as Dionysian, hubristic, and self-divinization.[3]

Lasch’s important contribution was to apply more precise psychodynamic categories. Utilizing these, he identified the erosion of specific internal structures and processes from the deluge of unrepressed infantile impulses. And yet paradoxically, his feverish condemnation of the widespread abandonment of the internalized discipline and self-repression of impulse life at the core of Western liberalism boomeranged. His nightmare scenario of uncontainable impulses proved so irreversible that it redirected the reactionary agenda: those excesses however vilified as depravity and self-degradation could no longer be excised or stifled but at best deflected.

Bell’s influential assertion most fully shared by Lasch and the subsequent psychopolitics of reaction was the bald rejection of any deeper self or personal capacity for creating meaning that transformative thinkers hoped to uncover beneath the internalized structures of containment and channeling. The pre-socialized and pre-internalized individual Bell defined as one “emptied of all content,” all capacity for self-mastery and rationality, all forms of complex understanding and moral commitment and capacities for growth and development, for belief and spiritual connection, all structures providing inner order and meaning. Absent comprehensive external shaping, the individual would immerse itself in “shock and sensation,” uncontrollable excesses of immediate – apocalyptic and self-glorying – feeling, absurdity and nihilism, violence and cruelty, perversion and orgiastic release, in a word, “madness.”[4]

For Lasch, the catastrophic inner liberation could be traced to modern shifts in primary socialization that claimed to enable the young through “permissive styles of childrearing” and more democratic family structures to generate their own values and commitments. From his psychodynamic perspective, this vitiated the child’s traditional identification with adult socializers ensuring the early internalization of adult priorities and practices. By in effect dismantling adult authority, the child was left disordered and without capacity to master or control the raging primitive “pre-Oedipal” impulses. The result was an individual “insatiable in his appetites,” at the mercy of his “neurotic need” for “oral gratification” and “oral-sadistic impulses,” of “destructive impulses” and the fear of “annihilati[on]” and “sexuality,” of depression and self-obsession, above all of the “narcissistic…preoccupation with its own immediate interests” and “unfulfilled desires.” At the center of the inner life of this “modern Narcissus,”[5] of its “state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire” for “immediate gratification,” stir “intensify[ing] narcissistic dreams of fame and glory” as futile compensation for the “void within,” its “inner emptiness.” As a fantasized “grandiose self” that can never be filled is relentlessly fed rather than suppressed, its primitive, “archaic,” arrested infantile fantasies are left free to run wild.[6]

Consumed by endless unsatisfiable appetites, including the primary demand that the world reflect its imagined self, scarcity is not simply the subject’s relative psychosocial deprivation but the absolute condition of psychological craving. The societal result is an anarchic condition of universal privation, the desperate “survival[ism]” of Hobbes’ “war of all against all.”[7] On the personal level, the relentless pursuit of compensation for core self-insufficiency accounts for the addictive behavior, obsessive self-referentiality, defensive withdrawal, mental health breakdowns, superficial self-care, family and relational failures, celebrity idolatry, religious cults, political aggrandizement, public manipulability, and other social and moral disorders of the age.

Lasch foresaw the result as a “dead end,” a “collapsing civilization” that “cannot face the future.”[8] Yet other psychological conservatives reframed internal emptiness as an opportunity for reestablishing social order on the basis of acute unrelenting needs. Being unfulfillable, such needs could be mobilized to render individuals dependent on repetitive allotments to quiet the longings, producing predictable appetitive loops of hunger and palliation. For Richard Sennett, the lure was “authorities to guide and reassure” driven by a “basic…need for authority.” And yet, because this now “idealistic” and “imaginative demand” for Sennett cannot be satisfied, for to “believe” in our time it “can be consummated is truly an illusion,” the search will always continue “for solidity and security in the strength of others.”[9] Philip Rieff hoped the “ethics of self-deprivation” could be revived from a “tragic sense of a world that will not yield to the[] wishes” of “unsatisfiable Man,” wishes incessant but subjected to continued failure.[10]

For Jackson Lears, the presumed “autonomous selfhood” of liberalism now in decline was in fact a devious assumption promoted by liberal society to obscure the many “constraints that unconscious or inherited drives placed on individual choice.” Now exposed as a socialization strategy to impose collective control on “inner emptiness” through regulated channels of acquisition and consumption, a “new and subtler set of controls on human behavior” was necessary. Since traditional “scarcity therapy” manipulating “anxieties” about self-deprivation had become less enticing, new seductions involving “abundance therapy” would link orderly channels of behavior to promises of fulfilling “aspirations.” These emerging “longings for reintegrated selfhood” would direct “anxious self-absorption” into the “pseudo-religion of health” and the promise of “ever more radiant, wholesome living.” Though Lears worried that these new chimeras of possibility would stir dangerously unrealistic expectations, they would need if stoked as with the old to be predictably “filled and refilled” continuously.[11] Lured onto the treadmill to race for compensatory substitutes promising unlimited fulfillment, individuals now trapped by their own enflamed impulses would be too tantalized by the next hit to assess the dynamic of their confinement or to challenge the order of consumption on which it rested.

VII. Toward a New History

What only became apparent with the emerging concept of more evolved individual capacities and potentialities was the grounding of liberalism in psychological arrest through the mechanisms of compensation and substitution. Arising at the advent of modern individualism, its early theorists had to reconcile the emerging importance of individual priorities and life choices with collective economic expansion and social cohesion. The solution was crafted by founding theorists John Locke and Adam Smith, and reaffirmed by the most important American liberal thinker John Dewey: children from early in life were to be directed toward socially instrumental priorities and socially designated satisfactions identified by adult authority as the child’s own rational and optimal choice. Thus Locke writes: “The first thing” children “should learn” is “that they were not to have any thing, because it pleased them, but because it was thought fit for them” as “suitable to their Wants” in compliance with the “Will of their Parents.”[12]

Smith understood this substitution process providing continual compensations for the sacrifice of genuine satisfactions as the engine of capitalist productivity: “the numberless artificial and elegant contrivances for promoting [one’s] ease or pleasure” involve a “foolish[] sacrifice[] for what, when he has got it, can afford him no real satisfaction.” For “if we consider the real satisfaction” gained from “power and riches,” it will “always appear in the highest degree contemptible and trifling.” Yet, he concludes, this is the very “deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.”[13] For Dewey, early “threats” and “fear” through “direct disapproval” and “shaming, ridicule, disfavor, rebuke, and punishment” have a determinative “educative” effect – “enlisting” the child’s “persisting direction” for “participating” in approved activities for “his own good.” Thus the child will sacrifice his now censured “troublesome line of behavior,” choosing to “fit” in to gain continued “approbation.”[14]

These forms of self-deferral, however crucial to modern economic expansion, were becoming as Erich Fromm explained increasingly debilitating in the more highly developed societies of the twentieth century: once instrumental motivations, incentives and goals, skills and capacities, roles and forms of identity, the “money, prestige, and power,” no longer served one’s evolving “self-interest.” These earlier social priorities were now exposed as “illusion[s]” that “actually serve[] everything else but the interests of his real self,” sacrifices of one’s emerging “powers” and “potentialities,” one’s “individuality” and capacity to “become oneself.” Molding oneself as an “interchangeab[le]….commodity[]” with “no core” beside one’s economic “role,” now shaped to play a “part” in the “opinion of others,” only serves the “economic machine,” leaving one “unfulfilled,” “empty and frustrated,” needing to “compensate for his failure to care for his real self.” To resist self “anesthetiz[ation]” and abandoning full development, one has to recognize and surmount the sacrifice of one’s true “self-interest” and “genuine self-love” by realizing and pursuing genuine meaning and priorities.[15]

These massive late industrial and post-industrial shifts in available and optimal priorities required, in the words of David Riesman, a more compelling vision of viable opportunities, calling upon us to “write a new history.”[16] The initial response came with the experimental and innovative thrust of the sixties. Rejecting the reductive liberal model of the deprived compensatory individual, it embraced the challenge of creating new forms of selfhood and community. In a seminal 1969 essay, sociologist Kenneth Keniston framed the cultural and social ferment of the 1960s as a “second revolution.” The first revolution, the “liberal industrial” transformation beginning in the late eighteenth century, focused on the broad popular struggle for “inclusion, citizenship” and universal access to “freedoms, goods, and privileges” once accorded only to elites. The new revolution, built upon the stunning liberal achievement of “material” and “social security,” political rights and access, and broad economic distribution, was shifting the emphasis with emerging post-industrial productivity, mass education, and social liberalization to a new set of concerns.[17]

In seeking a world “beyond materialism…careerism and vocationalism,” younger generations were asking “What lies beyond affluence?,” what “new fulfillment” beyond competition and consumption? Its new priorities were “psychological liberation” freed from the “subtle oppressions of psychological repression, group pressures, and social expectation,” autonomy rather than conformity, and empowerment more substantial than the conventional citizen rituals enshrined as “political freedom.” The goal was also to transcend formal social justice and equality through vibrant and caring and inclusive communities. For Keniston, the project of this emerging post-industrial ferment was “a new vision, a new set of values” through “goals” focusing on “the quality of life.”[18]

As the transformed picture of individual and collective goals began to fill out, it seems hard to imagine objections to lives less tethered to the productive mechanism. But as this socio-historical shift increasingly challenged the dysfunctional forms of liberal social organization and social practice, its scope broadened to include a developmental reframing of selfhood, of incentives and capacities, of empowerment and self-worth. For many individuals called to imagine lives freed from the struggle for survival and basic well being, however, the task of forging new models of self-development, relatedness, and community to replace the timeless patterns of deprivation and scarcity was overwhelming.  Qualms mounted that the limits hindering the cultivation of psychological and emotional development and personal meaning now lay not in problems of production but primarily from barriers within one’s own internal deprivations.

Locating and revitalizing one’s authentic wishes, priorities, and forms of pleasure, in turn facilitating the creation of a life narrative of meaning, commitment, and connection, is a complex undertaking. Obscured by the instrumental substitutes imposed from early in life as adaptational demands, new possibilities are not simply waiting fully developed to be uncovered through a self-inventory or shift in personal practices. To the contrary, that social dynamic directing unconditional integration into the productive and acquisitive system continues to function. Unraveling these introjects and reshaping internal motivations, capacities, and practices of a post-compensatory self involve cultivating previously neglected potentialities without benefit of a detailed flow chart or specified outcome. Given these hurdles, the fact that such a ground-breaking developmental project, including a more nurturing socialization of early selfhood, has become ever clearer in our time should be cause for great assurance, particularly as the crumbling systems of self and society reopen the future to human initiative.

VIII. The Age of Narcissism II: A New Model of Selfhood

The framework for a post-compensatory self had until the post-war period been the episodic undertaking of thinkers committed to advancing social evolution beyond the psychosocial ceilings and compromises of the liberal age. The predominant theorist was the great originative thinker Rousseau. In his major work, Emile, he presciently laid forth a post-scarcity model of selfhood whose socialization would sequentially nurture genuine needs and desires at each stage of the developmental process. This would enable the growing subject to integrate its love of self, its individuality, and its capacities, and to utilize these emerging capacities to realize its aspirations and ideals in the world. At the same time, Rousseau explained how the core commitment to authenticity would prepare a young person to recognize and resist the prevalent forms of compensatory self-posturing arising from early deprivation and endemic frustration of one’s potential. Inspiring many who followed including Emerson, Whitman, Bourne, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and Henry Miller in the U.S. and D.H. Lawrence and A.S. Neill in England, these aspirations percolated at the margins of cultural experimentation through mid-century.

Two novel factors brought this project from imaginative, even millennial, wish-fulfillment to a feasible option for societal reconstruction. The first, post-industrial productivity, was made apparent when as Herbert Marcuse noted the “utopian possibilities” of fulfillment, once regarded as “unreal” and without “any place in the historical universe,” are now “inherent in the technical and technological forces of advanced capitalism and socialism.”[19] The second was the emergence of a developmental discourse among post-Freudian psychoanalysts offering an alternative model to Freud’s pessimistic view of human selfhood. Reframing the dynamic of early psychological formation, several thinkers including notably Fromm and Heinz Kohut identified how an early cultivation of healthy self-formation would provide the child with inner capacities for integrating its authentic desires, enabling it to fulfill its own aspirations by achieving the self-mastery to shape its narrative of meaning, purpose, and commitment. As this new psychodynamic approach drew upon earlier post-liberal envisionings, the components of a new age congealed.

With authoritarian forces and attitudes proliferating in the late thirties, Fromm, a political exile from Germany to the U.S., turned his psychoanalytic training and research on modern character structure with the groundbreaking Frankfurt School to the frailty of democracy. In Escape from Freedom (1941), Fromm advanced the startling argument that the U.S. was “faced with the same phenomenon” as Europe, the equally “grave[] danger” of being “fertile soil for the rise of Fascism.” Americans believed that, by releasing the “individual from all external restraints,” they had achieved “democracy” and “true individualism.” But this great step was insufficient for creating genuine selfhood: “The right to express our thoughts,” Fromm explained, “means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own.” Without a socialization that will “further the inner independence and individuality of the child, its growth and integrity,” individuals will always be impressionable from feelings of “insignificance and powerlessness.”[20]

Fromm’s focus was on the deep-seated sense of inadequacy and incapacity in modern society that compels subjects for psychic survival to “escape” an unmanageable personal responsibility. The modern form, paralleling traditional authoritarian submission, is “compulsive conforming.” In this case, the individual, while “consciously conceiv[ing] of himself as free and subject only to himself” as the cultural mythos insists, has in fact internalized collective attitudes and expectations, becoming from childhood “exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be.” Performing a charade of individuality, a fabricated repertoire of what Fromm calls “pseudo thinking,” “pseudo feeling,” and “pseudo acts” of willing, the subject evades without realizing it genuine experience, constructing an arrested “pseudo self” as “replacement of the original self.” Continual compensation and validation through the “approval and recognition of others”[21] and hiding by “act[ing] according to their expectations” are employed to keep underlying feelings of emptiness and impotence at bay.[22]

Turning to the broader psychosocial challenges and possibilities of post-industrialism in Man for Himself (1947), Fromm expanded his analytic frame in two ways: identifying the underlying dynamic of self-arrest; and proposing a model of healthy selfhood whose nurturance would facilitate full development of its latent possibilities. Regarding the first, the liberal focus on successful systemic functioning in place of genuine self-worth and self-love leaves the individual falsely deceived that its socially defined “self-interest” designates what is “best for him,” when the actual result is an unrecognizable condition of “self-denial” and self-deprivation. Lacking a core sense of identity, this preshaped self-interest futilely directs the subject to assuage its emptiness through conventional practices under the guise of affirming one’s true priorities.[23]

Given that the supposedly self-interested liberal individual trapped in self-deferral “does not love himself too much but too little; in fact he hates himself,” the basis of healthy individuality must be regrounded in genuine “care for his real self.” Aided by an “education” driven no longer by “manipulation” but “helping a child realize his potentialities,” the child learns to trust its own unmanaged and unprogrammed thoughts, feelings, actions. This flourishing utilizes the growing capacity to distinguish genuine pleasures arising from a psychological sense of “abundance” that seek joy in play and “sensual and emotional productiveness” from those satisfactions that merely provide temporary relief from “ psychological scarcity” and “deficiency.”[24]

Developing the inner strength, clarity, conviction, resilience, and ultimately mastery over his powers and capacities – resulting in the “power to” self-actualize rooted in self-love – will enable the individual to undertake “productive” activity reflecting his interests, aspirations, and values in the world. The result would be a life of meaningful achievement and happiness, collaborative relations, engaged commitments and empowered citizenship, and faith in human advancement. Striving to fulfill the highest “task in life,” to generate meaning and fulfillment rather than to compensate for deficiencies, one is able to “give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is,” and help to create a society that “takes care of the full human development of all.”[25]

IX. Kohut: A New Developmental Model

Among Fromm’s contributions was identifying the psychosocial distinction between the healthy narcissism of a self-loving and self-investing and generative subject and the deficient narcissism emerging from undeveloped self-investment and unrealized capacities. Fromm’s work – building on Nietzsche, Wilhelm Reich, and Marcuse among others – represents a watershed, identifying the path of genuine self-love to healthy self-consolidation. Furthermore, the systemic self-arrest characterizing the liberal model of individuality is now identified as a developmental failing that inflicts core narcissistic injury on the emerging self.

This new horizon in the project of self-constitution radically recasts the liberal age and its model of the individual as a transitional and essentially incomplete stage in the developmental project. A full psychodevelopmental model of healthy selfhood building on Fromm is the contribution of psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, founder of the emerging field of self psychology. In Kohut’s evolving theoretical work, narcissistic wishes are recognized as developmental “demands” for self-actualization beginning in early life. Provided novel external “acceptance” rather than traditional rejection by the adult world, the emerging subject can for the first time through the “integration” rather than repression of these wishes generate expansive aspirations and pursue their fulfillment within the “web of his realistic potentialities.”[26] 

This shift in psychodynamic emphasis is revolutionary. In the past, the expansive, typically quite unrealistic, wishes of the young would be sanctioned as dangerous and unrealistic for violating the limits imposed by societal hierarchies and economic realities. In more recent times, their expression has provoked suppression by an adult world that had tabled its early dreams to achieve social acceptance. Investigating the early emergence of these fantasies, Kohut recognized them as expressing nascent forms of expansive self-unfolding that through experimentation could well generate new developmental possibilities. In an age of affluence and individualism, these were not to be constrained by what may seem – or may simply once have been – infeasible.

Supplementing Fromm’s more philosophical treatment with a detailed developmental analysis, Kohut’s objective was to identify how individuals from their early years utilize primary nurturing relationships to develop the psychological and relational tools to shape emotionally grounded and imaginatively expansive lives. The result is a new conception of childhood: one learning to trust and actualize one’s own feelings, perceptions, ideas, sense of meaning, playfulness and creativity, connectedness. Able to take themselves seriously and confident in being taken seriously by others (or understanding others as lacking in empathy and care), the young could employ the multiple dimensions of their emerging self-capacity with ever greater conviction to shape values and practices in the world.

In order for the young child to experience, experiment with, and integrate – without boundaries regarding what is possible – its broad range of wishes and potentialities, to learn where pleasure in activity and meaning in achievement and contribution lie, what reaches of actualization are achievable, coalescing a sense of self-mastery and self-authorship and self-framing, the child must be assisted by adult nurturers invested in the child’s flourishing and maturation. Enabled to connect with its fullest wishes as they emerge from within as narcissistic fantasies for itself, this process will establish within “the self” an “uninterrupted flow of the narcissistic strivings” as they “proceed toward creative expression.”[27]

Kohut cautions that enabling this flow to solidify the child’s internal self-connection is critical for psychological growth. Despite adult reservations regarding the young about how “limited the social impact of the achievements of the personality may be and however insignificant the individual’s creative activity may appear to others,” the child must be protected from inappropriately premature and critical personal or social judgments. Lacking understanding of how much early developmental work is taking place in the child’s own experimentation with itself, these judgments interrupt the internal growth process and deflate the child’s self-connection.

Similarly, what may appear to be over-involvement with its own processes and productions, its expression of “central pattern[s] of exhibitionism and grandiose ambitions” and insistence on measuring oneself by one’s own “set of firmly internalized ideals of perfection,” are crucial for generating more evolved “talents and skills.” Through “optimal…empathetic responses” taking seriously these early self-ventures, the facilitative adult serves as “joyful mirror to a child’s healthy assertiveness” as it consolidates its sense of “self-esteem” and “self-cohesion.” In this way, as the child becomes a vigorous and “reliable initiator and performer of joyfully undertaken activities,” the “organizing center of the skills and talents of the personality” culminates through increasingly “successful exercise” in the “adult’s mature self.”[28]

Through this new conception of psychological health, the “narcissistic injury” upon an “unresponded-to” core self from classic neglect of self-development – no longer normal and inevitable – can be better understood. As the young reveal strengths at ages previously unimaginable, adults psychologically and emotionally unable to integrate their own aspirations will because of their developmental shortfalls enforce generational control to censure these initiatives, reproducing psychological injuries and deficits in developing subjects. Leaving the child unequipped for the task of childhood, to “transform its archaic grandiosity” into “realistic ambitions” and “attainable ideals,” will deprive the individual of “narcissistic sustenance” to shape internally evolved ideals and goals and sustain continuing self-actualization.[29]

Such “narcissistic vulnerability”[30] can readily precipitate an “abandonment of the core of the self,” leading as Kohut understood to a compensatory obsession with psychic “survival and social dominance,” along with acute feelings of futility and “destructive rage” triggered by the severe developmental shortcomings in the self. The behavior manifested by a deeply injured subject in other words is reactive, its destructiveness deriving not from a “primary instinct” of evil intent which “strives toward its goals and searches for an outlet” but as the response to unjustly administered trauma and deprivation.[31] In order to address the “narcissistic injuries” arising from failures by socializing adults and other deficits in developmental nurturance, Kohut supported the training and preparation of analysts skilled at facilitating continued internal development.

X. The Pandemic of Narcissistic Injury

Many Americans are appalled by the contagion of wanton destruction, cruelty, scapegoating, and derision roiling society, a psychic forest fire threatening to unravel even our deeply flawed systems of justice and collective well-being. The issue of how the American Dream – by reducing success and self-worth to matters of winning and losing – pits us against each other and diminishes us all has never been adequately confronted. Because the relentless competition and sorting process imposes narrow measures of achievement and forecloses most avenues of self-actualization, it undercuts the possibility of fulfillment across the political spectrum and turns us all into adversaries unable together to pursue the larger public good.

As the anticipated era of developmental advance gave way to dramatically diminished aspirations, a product of both the long time horizon of psychosocial change and the increasingly aggressive reaction, individuals were forced to confront their inability to forge qualitatively new lives. Left absent any larger understanding to attribute their difficulties to matters of personal failing, the initial promise of post-industrial transformation was recast as the experience of narcissistic injury, foundering dreams, self-loss, and a failure to thrive. To understand the deeper impact of this dramatic collapse and return to a system that had repudiated transformation, we can utilize Kohut’s penetrating analysis of the dynamic of early narcissistic injury. Never before had a society dared to tempt its members with the possibility and even audacious promise of uncompromised self-realization.

Brought up for centuries now to believe in magical tales of personal ascendancy and achievement, most Americans – like Bradley Cooper in Limitless – clutch such early stories of ultimate success. To be sure, a great number of Americans respond to these cultural temptations by working to reframe and integrate their early aspirations with the life they will have. But in elevating such early dreams of a life personally shaped for actualization while systematically refusing in socialization and education to nurture and facilitate their realization, Americans are faced with enduring patterns of arrested development and unrealized life stories. Given their different social locations and differential outcomes in this predatory process, quite distinct patterns of injury and strategies of alleviation characterize the more successful as opposed to those less so. This has led in turn to the retreat of both conservatives/reactionaries and progressives/liberals from their governing values and objectives into a largely defensive posture that ironically brings each ever closer to the traditional orientation of their opposition.

For the conservative and extreme rightward proponents of the Reaction, an increased opportunity for further self-development or social renewal was never anticipated. At the same time, primed by the American Dream and the affluent society, they felt increasingly entitled to the promise of fulfillment being widely celebrated. Moreover, as countercultural release exposed the collapsing limits on desire, they quickly assumed that all was permitted and threw off the chains of traditionally repressive socialization in the name of instinctual release and expression. The rude awakening came quickly, however, that they were ill prepared for lives of greater freedom and self-empowerment, less prepared than many over whom they had long presumed precedence. The result was less the nourishing of new dreams than a demand for greater license and expanded privilege.

Possessing for the most part less education and social capital and facing with growing equality pervasive challenges to its remaining claim of being an entitled elect, this cohort turned to fantasies of vindication. It has in turn sought refuge for its loss of status in a sense of betrayal and attacks on those presumably advancing in power and privilege at its expense: the disenfranchised, immigrants, women, youth, those identified by Trump in a Laura Ingraham interview as “thugs” in “dark uniforms” and others supporting violent anarchists on the streets and mobilizing to destroy the suburbs, as well as snobbish coastal elites. From all sides, its claims of injury and demands for restored privilege and precedence were ridiculed, reinforcing the sense of dispossession.[32]

As the rise of meritocratic society has yet further enflamed the sense of being permanently bypassed, the objectives no longer involve traditional conservatism. For those multitudes shunted aside to endure the pain of unreachable futures and the psychological injury of having few apparent prospects, unable to address their sense of deficiency and defeat, the nation’s promise lingers only in the dying embers of childhood exhortations to the American Dream, there to be fanned by myths of shared supremacy in revivalist frenzy. Refusing to trust offers of assistance from privileged meritocrats presumed eager to maintain their own advantage, they wrap themselves in rhetoric of conspiratorial evil and dehumanized others. Seeking vengeance on their own system for reneging on its expansive and seductive promises to its patriots, they no longer imagine any alternative to dehumanized compensations, even though opting for craven leaders and untenable policy claims wreaks ever greater injury on themselves.

What makes this time so perilous, however, are not merely the developmental difficulties (and systemic neglect) of this population, its endemic pattern of social and cultural lag in the face of economic and societal modernization beginning with urbanization and industrialization long before McCarthyism, Goldwater, and Nixon. While this vast cohort has clearly exercised a powerful drag on the creation of a just post-industrial society, the gaping cleavages rendering American society so vulnerable to insurmountable reaction reflect the long retreat of once more progressive and liberal sectors from their traditional allies and constituencies among the disenfranchised.

For liberals and one-time progressives, while distressed about the emerging plutocracy, the switch was made some decades ago from demanding change to reluctant support. Their dramatic turn from expanding societal inclusion and opportunity, non-token diversity and social justice, genuine autonomy and relaxed economic pressures represents as Thomas Frank explains an escalating preoccupation with their own meritocratic success. Having acceded as the price of climbing the meritocratic ladder to the sacrifice of one’s own dreams for routinized roles and standardized returns, they are now the foremost protectors of the system against its one time defenders even as it dissolves. Trapped in an increasingly grueling competition in order to maintain their supply of external material and psychological rewards, the consolations of wealth and status and taste, they flaunt markers of achievement and self-worth hoping to convince themselves of their enthusiasm for the trade-offs.

Asserting their claim to elite privilege along with hoarding opportunities for their children, they have become complicit in the nation’s growing conservatism, global interventionism, mushrooming economic disparities along with meaningless and onerous work, manic consumption, and environmental neglect, pushing the vast percentage of society without organizational and bureaucratic leverage further into powerlessness and marginalization. What is never addressed by this new would-be caste, however (though moving it closer to the Reaction), is the underlying impulse carefully veiled as organizational liberal striving: the deep impact of narcissistic injury on their lives.

It is hard to imagine these sectors achieving meritocratic status and power as suffering from acute narcissistic injury. And, to be sure, they have quite successfully deflected recognition of the personal and social costs of their retreat into privilege and status. Yet, as a significant cohort turned in the sixties from imperatives of economic production and material advancement fueled by the dynamic of deprivation, the cultural priorities shifted toward fuller self-development and non-repressive relations and communities. But this challenging and unprecedented transition had barely – and quite unevenly – begun when the Reaction surged. The new cultural and personal aspirations had attracted many in varying degrees. Yet, with mounting frustration at the pace of change and few immediate pathways or psychological resources emerging clearly, many of the individuals most drawn to transformation retreated from hopeful exuberance to feelings of inadequacy, vulnerability, and disorientation.

While more likely possessing significant social capital and being well educated, furthermore believing themselves socially and morally enlightened, they have been in crucial ways more impacted by the revolt against liberal barriers to social transition and transformation than the right. Awakened early to internal change, they did for a time turn to self-exploration and experimentation with new priorities in the quest for post-compensatory selfhood and purpose. They experienced the developmental costs of liberal constraints on self-actualization, parental assumptions of privilege, material and status preoccupations, a rigorous competitive socialization insensitive to genuine relations and authentic purpose, and class isolation from the socially marginalized not at a distance from its impact on their lives.

Unprepared however to move beyond a society radically constricting options and new ways of being, unwilling to jeopardize their own career and status trajectories and resentful of younger generations in their own families and communities demanding moral accountability, they accommodated to the increasingly rightward competitive orientation. This is the sector most able to take advantage of the draconian achievement ethic and compensatory reward ethos. Having been turned – and well-turned – on the lathe of external validation and value, they internalized the fusion of identity with functional role, self with organizational position, individual merit with systemic status, personal purpose with operational achievement, narcissistic injury with systemic incentive, self-worth with socially valued rewards. There are of course many progressives (by absolute numbers if not percentages) who have found reserves of inner strength and resolution to continue the struggle for new forms of selfhood and relatedness, social justice and democratic participation. At the same time, most – except for increasing numbers of the young – are reformers hoping to renew the structures of liberal society, believing that serious dislocations of self and society attending deeper transformation can be avoided.

Letting go of those internalized measures and honed capacities central to success presents a terrifying prospect for all would-be proponents of change: discerning the power to discover, author, self-validate, and actualize internal value and meaning without clear outcomes requires the recovery of internal guidance markers long since identified as vague and unusable impediments to success. At the same time, the tireless pursuit of system returns as substitutes for sustained meaning and individual actualization has obscured – while it has not expunged – the pain of self-betrayal. Unwilling to identify their genuine ideals and aspirations or address how to achieve the renewal of American society, having foregone attending to their injuries to self-realization and self-affirmation, they find it hard to call upon on that part of the self capable of principled opposition or significant personal and collective change.

Ever more dependent on disproportionate rewards through fabricated consumer product and status distinctions between haves and have-nots to insulate them from the frustrations of paralysis and self-deception, there is diminished willingness to support redistribution and full inclusion for the less fortunate, or to even imagine lives less dominated by organizational imperatives. Unwilling to face this sacrifice of one’s inner dreams to Fromm’s pseudo-self, the final torment is depression at lives of empty compensation, propping up the system not out of moral conviction but merely from calculations of personal interest.

XI. The Continuing Legacy of Injury

Having replaced larger possibilities with a narrowing horizon, neither those who have settled for greater rewards nor those trapped without significant benefits believe the system any longer offers more than a repository from which to extract compensation. Despite important differences, these two dominant cohorts sharing a sense of arrested development in turn find overlap in their resistance to cultural and psychological change. Whether quietly equivocal from shame at betraying one’s own potential, or aggressively reactive to the presumed betrayal by others, the common assumption is that narcissistic injury is unavoidable. Refusal to challenge the compensatory dynamic is in turn widely rationalized in academic and literary circles by marginalizing the self as a romantic construct without a basis in psychological experience. Deriving from “today’s skepticism toward personal transformation” from doubts about the value or success of “self-liberation”[33] is the counsel to endure the compensatory narcissistic nightmare as a triumph of realism. Exploring new pathways to authentic meaning is in turn rendered as a clear sign of adjustment failure.[34]

The most serious and troubling long-term damage emanating from this reactionary convergence is the resolve to depress the aspirations and possibilities for self-actualization in younger generations. Systematic pressure to abort the development of autonomy and democratic citizenship has become since Reagan the staple of American socialization: to assert generational control by driving the young to compete relentlessly for external validation and markers of success, narrow skill mastery, extramural performance achievement, and social popularity. With both parties accelerating high-stakes competition such as “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” a core sense of narcissistic injury, of deficiency and inadequacy, is instilled as the marker of membership, referred to by Yale professor William Deresiewicz as a culture of “excellent sheep.”[35]

From an early age, American children are relentlessly culled and sorted. This sorting process is in turn exacerbated through division of the nation into center and periphery, cosmopolitan regions of meritocratic privilege and global culture as opposed to those of dead-end economies and cultural stagnation. As in The Hunger Games, those young pushed and outfitted by anxious and striving parents intent on competitive advancement in tandem with a highly stratified schooling system are channeled to higher and higher levels of externally defined competence. For the vast numbers left behind by fierce meritocratic selectivity, there is only abandonment to lowered expectations and the sting of failure and insufficiency.

What that movie would reveal if we were listening is that all of the young lose. Trivializing internal measures or experiences of personal meaning, worth, or direction, defunding avenues of personal expression and non-competitive capacity building, and addressing performance or adjustment difficulties or resistance with mood altering drugs has amounted to a 40-year war on American youth. This generational repression, triggered initially by the 1960s revolt of youth for full citizenship thus results, despite differential access to structural opportunities, in the end only in self-sacrifice on the altar of standardized components and cynical discipline wrapped by a fragile and cowed adult culture in systemic posturing about moral imperatives.

Trapped in a compensatory cycle of narcissistic deficit that engenders failure and inadequacy, younger generations – deprived of cultivation of a self – are chained to negative-sum systemic striving and the relentless merchandizing of addictive substitutes marketed as miracle cures. The underlying injury, as Jia Tolentino has written in Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (2019), is the unaddressed hunger for a lost identity. Deflected to cultivating the skills of “packaging and broadcasting your image” for a “constant, unseen audience,” one is forced into continually “reaffirming [one’s] status as an interesting subject, a worthy object, a self-generating spectacle with a viewership attached.” Focusing on the “lessons” defined by “whatever the market demands,” one is pressured to mobilize the “skills in self-presentation and self-surveillance” to project a carefully manufactured ideal persona so “preemptively controlled” as to “afford the impression of spontaneity.”[36] External scripts disguised as one’s own thoughts and feelings are implanted to create an illusion of autonomy, and the system, insulated through consensual self-repression from intrusions by the real, has preempted the capacity for development and transformation.

XII. The Nature of Change

What we now face is not the failure of change but the nature of change. The liberal self, engendered to pursue unrelenting competition and unquestioned compensation, is unable to avert the descent into ever more toxic forms of heedless self-aggrandizement and moral nihilism. The predatory agenda of an increasingly dominant and runious elite with political and economic leverage leaves an impoverished society with fewer and fewer, largely foreordained winners and dimming prospects for social justice. In this survival of the fittest, the call in many quarters to abrogate remaining protections provided by Constitutional balance, legality, international comity, economic safety nets, and formal representative government takes on a sense of inevitability. The liberal dream, effective in mobilizing early modern populations to the task of nation building and unprecedented wealth creation, is powerless to address its dark side as the neoliberal war of all against all. Refashioning the system at will, the Reaction has declared its ascendancy.

Now what? There is no spin that can promise a way out while ignoring the exhaustion of the liberal framework for meeting the challenges we face. Yet social analysts and political commentators in this time of peril curtail our recognition of the stakes and the dangers. Daily commentators lurch between terrifying admonitions such as Paul Krugman’s reference to the U.S. as a possible “failed state,” meant to scare us back into our right minds (without revealing what that right mind is), and banal recommendations that we need to start telling the truth again or shamefully confess our civic neglect.[37] So-called students of the longer term like Jill Lepore, Sean Wilentz, and Mark Lilla do look beyond the latest election cycle, but only to find in place of eroding conventional clichés new clichés: the devious influence of social media, William Barr’s misunderstanding of executive prerogative under the Constitution, or even the illegibility of present trends. These failures to fix and assess responsibility all neatly succeed in rendering ourselves blameless.

While those refusing to confront the great post-industrial shifts provide support to a Reaction determined to repel change, the waning of the liberal world opens before us as crisis and opportunity. Can we embrace our growing and evolving capacity to live beyond narcissistic injury and self-arrest? It rests on us to evaluate our entrapment in obsolete assumptions about psychological limits and the impossibility of moral collectives to together create a more just and deeply self-actualizing future. Looming over these initiatives will be the responsibility we have forsaken: to nurture fuller human possibilities emerging from early life aspirations for us all. Young people grow up with dreams beyond conventional boundaries, and cultivating these as the foundation of our identities and source of collective progress was to be our nation’s distinctive contribution. Only rededication to the flourishing of our young – and to our own – will surmount the squandering of our innate potential and devastating social cleavages generated by late liberalism and allow us to join together to create what is ours to imagine.

***

A new history begins with recognizing potential openings as a spur, an inspiration, to richer and fuller forms of selfhood with new forms of productivity, care, creativity, connection, meaning, value, expression, contribution. It means acknowledging in the words of Marilyn Robinson that in the “richest country in history” we refuse to be told “we cannot have benefits our grandparents enjoyed,” that we are “too poor to welcome immigrants.” A repressive “psychology” and “coercive atmosphere of scarcity” cannot be allowed to mandate that the nation “dismantle its own institutions” and provision of public goods, leaving us with only a life-denying “struggle” for left-overs.[38]

The challenge is to recover our developmental initiative and the liberation and cultivation of our capacities for self-actualization and new forms of meaning beyond the compensatory age of deficient and misshapen liberal personhood. In this sense, the historical initiative rests paradoxically with those who are seeking to rise to the authentic and engaged lives now within reach in the post-industrial era. Joining together to collaboratively discover and advance the promise in the words of political and moral visionary Randolph Bourne of a “regenerated social order” is a crucial dimension of transformative change. It allows for the “heightening of all the powers of the personality” and the opportunity through “socially productive” activity to in the present “live[] in that sort of world which he desires.”[39]

Everyday political activism and opposition is necessary,[40] but to what extent can a failing system that forecloses change insist on being rescued by its victims when vast changes are afoot? Liberals and most progressives as loyal opposition to this misnamed democracy have never grasped that liberal legitimacy as claimed through a ritual social contract was always an appropriation and depreciation of the human capacity to covenant and to share authority and responsibility for shaping the world. The fallout from the rejection of this imperial appropriation may well be, as Richard Kreitner writes in his current book Break It Up, the cessation of the United States as a common project. The spread of new genuinely democratic communities manifestly exercising this new capacity and nurturing lives of authentic meaning and commitment may be a further result.


[1] Adam B. Seligman, Modernity’s Wager:Authority, the Self, and Transcendence (Princeton, 2000), 4.

[2] Philip Rieff, Fellow Teachers, (New York 1972), 21-2.

[3] Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York, 1976),  38, 54

[4] Bell, Contradictions, 144-5,137.

[5] Christopher Lasch, “The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time,” Partisan Review, 1977, XLIV, no. 1, 13, 15, 14, 15-16, 18, 19.

[6] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York, 1978), xvi, 21, 13, 10, 12n.

[7] Lasch, Culture, 49, 69.

[8] Lasch, Culture, xv.

[9] Richard Sennett, Authority (New York, 1980), 15, 187.

[10] Rieff, Teachers, 207.

[11] T.J. Jackson Lears, “From Salvation to Self-Realization,” in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980, eds. Richard Wightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears (New York, 1983) 9, 8, 17, 15, 8.

[12] John Locke, The Educational Writings of John Locke (Cambridge, 1968), 143, 145.

[13] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis, 1982), 182-3.

[14] John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York, 1966) 25-27.

[15] Erich Fromm, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (New York, 1947), 19-20, 73-4, 77, 73, 135, 131, 140, 133.

[16] David Riesman, “Commentary: The National Style,” in The American Style: Essays in Value and Performance, ed. Elting E. Morison (New York, 1958), 367.

[17] Kenneth Keniston, “You Have to Grow Up in Scarsdale,” in Youth and Dissent: The Rise of a New Opposition (New York, 1971), 303-4.

[18] Keniston, “Scarsdale,” 304, 303, 313, 317, 313.

[19] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston, 1969), 3-4.

[20] Erich Fromm Escape from Freedom (New York, 1941), 239-41.

[21] Fromm, Escape, 240, 184, 188, 193, 199, 202, 203.

[22] Fromm, Man, 73, 77.

[23] Fromm, Man, 133, 135.

[24] Fromm, Man, 131, 207,188, 186, 185.

[25] Fromm, Man, 88, 83, 237, 244.

[26] Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (New York, 1971), 185.

[27] Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (New York, 1977), d54.

[28] Kohut, Restoration, 54, 116, 130-1, 134-5, 116.

[29] Kohut, Restoration, 117, 81-2, 127.

[30] Heinz Kohut, Self Psychology and the Humanities: Reflections on a New Psychoanalytic Approach (New York, 1985), 105.

[31] Kohut, Restoration, 116-7, 114.

[32] Donald Trump, Laura Ingraham Interview, Fox News (August 31, 2020)

[33] Elaine Blair, “Men’s Lib,” New York Review of Books (February, 21, 2019), 10.

[34] See e.g., Kathryn Schulz, “Pond Scum: The Real Henry David Thoreau,” The New Yorker (October 19, 2015)

[35] See William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Mideducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York, 2015).

[36] Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (London, 2019), 63-4.

[37] Paul Krugman, “Is America Becoming a Failed State?,”  New York Times (November 5, 2020), A18.

[38] Marilyn Robinson, “What Kind of Country Do We Want?,” New York Review of Books (June 11, 2020), 44.

[39] Randolph Bourne, “For Radicals,” in Youth and Life, 291, 304, 306, 307.

[40] For the insistence that there is no shame-free alternative to committed reform activity, see Eitan Hersh, Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change (New York, 2020).