“[W]e may expect,” Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, first published in 1930, “that one day someone will venture upon . . . research into the pathology of civilized communities.” This statement directly follows Freud’s suggestion that, if it is true that the evolution of a civilization proceeds similarly to that of an individual, it is possible that many civilizations and perhaps all of humanity suffer from collective neurosis induced by the pressures of “civilizing trends.” According to the Viennese doctor, the fundamental problem, or “discontent,” of a civilization is the unrealistic demands it makes of the id, in particular Christian society’s command to love others as we love ourselves. Though Freud recognized that this injunction is the strongest possible defense against innate human aggressiveness, he also considered it a demand that is impossible to meet, as well as “a superlative example of the unpsychological attitude of the cultural super-ego.” Hence, he concluded that “the price of progress in civilization is paid in forfeiting happiness through the heightening of a sense of guilt.” Humanity, Freud speculated, may only be unified by ceasing to trouble about the happiness of the individual citizens who compose it.
It is a measure of the nearly total politicization of our time (also of the desuetude Freudian theory and analysis have fallen into) that the rash of political assassinations of the 1960’s and early 70’s, and the epidemic of random shootings beginning a decade or so ago, have been attributed largely to the refusal of the political right to accept a draconian extension of gun-control laws, on the one hand, and to the violent expression of hateful thoughts, usually by angry white males, on the other. Despite bipartisan calls for the improved diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, the psychological and emotional aspects of apparently irrational mass murder have received remarkably little attention from the explaining class. A plausible Christian account might be demonic possession, but we live in a partly secularized, partly paganized society that either disbelieves in the Devil or regards him with a sort of affection as Bacchus or Dionysus in Halloween costume. The reason for this likely has to do with the spectacular failure of the therapeutic state and therapeutic society; a failure recognized, or at least sensed, by many of the hundreds of thousands of “experts” who created and now operate that state and society and have therefore a powerful interest in ignoring and covering over its failures, while supporting its existence and maintaining its prestige. The therapeutic West is the advanced liberal West as well, and so there is much at stake here—everything, in fact—for the present liberal-therapeutic regime, always alert to its own best interest and adept at sniffing out whatever threatens it.
This is why the therapeutic-liberal establishment, which very much includes the educational system, public and private, from top to bottom, refuses to acknowledge the most salient aspect of contemporary Western society—American society, especially. Happy, contented, and well-integrated societies do not experience public shootings, in schools or at work or elsewhere, at the rate of one incident every couple of weeks, sometimes even one per week, and so it is reasonable to conclude that our present civilization substantially comprises very unhappy people, indeed. But how, given the indisputable fact that it is a creation of advanced liberalism—supported by the welfare state, instructed by the most enlightened and extensively trained class of educators in history, and cared for by legions of health experts—can this be? Who could be unhappy in the embrace of such caring, sensitive, obsessively democratic, elaborately organized, and expertly run institutions? Moreover, the public system rests upon the most advanced, comprehensive, and efficient economic machine ever devised: a dynamo created largely by (more or less) private enterprise for the express purpose of satisfying the consumeriate in every one of its whims, while all the time creating new desires the most dedicated recreational shopper could not have imagined. Finally, beyond all this, is the assurance, offered jointly by the public and private spheres, of unlimited freedom regarding individual self-determination and self-fulfillment, self-created identity or recreated identity, entirely unrestricted by public morality and religious sanction. In such circumstances, unhappy and discontented people could only be reactionaries, conscious or unconscious, ungracious or simply sick, against utopia under construction, modern equivalents of Solzhenitsyn and Whittaker Chambers. These are the toughest nuts that not even the most expert of experts can crack, rehabilitate, and reeducate. There is nothing for it but to take away their guns, or their right to own and ability to procure guns, consign them to mental clinics or a hazy life on the approved drug of the moment, and focus the System’s efforts on keeping the sane and easily manipulated supermajority happy.
There is an obvious objection here. Freud’s Vienna, like the Europe of 1930, has hardly any point of similarity with America in the 21st century, which is, indeed, not just another era and another place, but another world. It is true that, while the bourgeois Viennese Jewish society in which Freud lived and worked was an unusually restrained and restrictive society, its gentile counterpart of the time was also, from today’s point of view, an unliberated society, and so was society in the rest of Europe and the United States, whose citizens were among those people of whom Sigmund Freud wrote that, “if one asks more of them [in the way of self-control], one produces revolt or neurosis in individuals or makes them unhappy.” But in the 21st century, under the regime of advanced liberalism, very few traditional restraints or impositions, whether of a religious nature or simply in conformance with common etiquette, are placed upon the individual’s superego. The “oppressive” sexual morality of the Christian West that Freud deplored, and on which he based so much of his inductive and analytical structure, has gone by the board, to the point where respect for the old rules is considered nowadays a sort of social offense or an indulgence in “self-harming” behavior, like wearing a hair shirt or practicing any form of religious penance—a very unhealthy and unenlightened thing to do. (I read an account in the New York Times of the funeral of a 20-year-old woman, dead in a car crash, whose family and friends lamented a young life denied the possibility of future accomplishments and human experience. “At least she had sex!” one of the mourners whispered to another.) So have codes of morality and of behavior (including loyalty, honor, and fidelity to vows and oaths), of dress, standards of learning, thought, art, and beauty. The new regime has replaced these things with “ethics”; moral, philosophical, and aesthetic relativism; and hostility to religion. It has abolished distinctions between the original two sexes, while recognizing a third one (the homosexual sex), and promoted the collapse of traditional social institutions, beginning with the family and heterosexual marriage. And it denies daily the existence of objective truth, or at least the possibility of discovering it, or of knowing that we have discovered it.
And because every society must have some semi-official code of behavior and standard of values, it has created its own pantheon of cultural heroes, identified new protected classes, and converted the old public square into the ideological equivalent of Soviet Russia’s Red Square. Postmodern liberalism has created a new world simply by inverting the old one. Indeed, this new world is an antiworld, a world not made for human beings to thrive, or even live, in.
Perhaps the old Christian West really was, as Freud described it, an emotionally repressive civilization, a gigantic factory of unconscious and deeply embedded mass frustration induced by unreasonable legal and social strictures against killing one’s father and sleeping with one’s mother, murdering or robbing one’s neighbor, or committing adultery with his wife or her husband. If so, then collective neurosis giving rise to international and global warfare in those pre-enlightened times (before, say, the 1960’s) is plausibly explainable by Freudian theory. Nobody has ever proved conclusively that every one of us—man, woman, child, and infant—desires to spend his life jumping from bed to bed or depriving his neighbor of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of freedom. On the other hand, the historical record does plainly show that, under the old moral and social dispensations, schoolchildren did not shoot their schoolmates, teachers, and parents, laid-off workers did not regularly commit mass murder at their former places of employment, and psychopathic killings did not feature in the daily papers but belonged largely to detective novels and Hollywood films. Nor did any but a miniscule percentage of men wish to be women or women men, physically and in their familial, social, and sexual roles. At the same time, the incidence of warfare, however limited in military scope, has hardly declined; indeed, it has probably increased in proportion to the greater degree of containment. It is reasonable to suppose that Sigmund Freud, were he living today, would view as a solidly scientific proposal the hypothesis that postmodern civilization induces neurotic mass behavior to a far greater and more deadly extent than civilization in its previous forms did.
The indispensable basis of human happiness—always and everywhere, before, now, and in the future—is the certain knowledge of who we are and who we are meant to be, in relation to ourselves and to the world we live in and also to other people and who they are intended to be. The literally mad postmodern project to reinvent humanity, as individuals and as a species, destroys that basis and makes its reestablishment impossible. Man is made to be restrained in his behavior by divine law and by the natural law that reflects his nature. Divine and human law alike are repressive and destructive to the degree that man is unwilling to cooperate with God’s grace in the perfection of human nature that can be achieved only by transcending it. Freud, who thought religion both an illusion and a neurosis, was incapable of understanding that—probably because he did not wish to understand it. There is an unhappy unfathomable terror, natural to man, that comes with not knowing where one stands or should stand in relation to the world; what the world is, and what oneself is. Postmodern people, young postmoderns especially, cannot begin to answer these questions, owing to a defective education. As human beings, however, they instinctively sense that the account their betters gave them of life and of their place in it is a dishonest, self-serving lie. Here is the source of postmodern civilization and its nihilistic, and all too often murderous, discontents.