This article appeared in issue #113, now available in our Blueprint for a New World Series Box Set.
In the late 1800s, when the infamous cigar-smoking Viennese doctor looked around at Victorian-Era Europe, he found one word to describe the particular type of insanity surrounding him—neurosis.
As he hypnotized, analyzed and listened to his patients, Sigmund Freud stumbled upon the fossils of a forgotten and neglected creature that lives on in the heart of man—the animal self. Repressing our sexuality—individually and collectively—was making us crazy. Forgotten sexual traumas, unconscious and repressed sexual wishes and severe sexual frustration were at the root of most, if not all, of the hysteria Freud was treating in his early career.
But by 1929, with his masterwork Civilization and its Discontents, Freud came to see a larger perspective . . . he began to diagnose not just individuals . . . but culture. He saw that it was the modern world, civilization itself, which was making everyone neurotic. Influenced as he was by Nietzsche and Darwin before him, Freud evoked how a primal, wild self had been disavowed as we became civilized, modern human beings. This untamed creature within still cries out in hunger and frustration from deep inside of us . . . and we neglect this beast at our peril. Freud diagnosed the civilizing act as the root of all the “discontents” which develop in man’s psyche as he straddles the conflicting demands of biological urges and the cultural norms aimed at curbing these ancient instincts. Madness was no longer individual, to Freud, but a species-wide dilemma between our inner most nature and our culture’s most cherished morals and mores.
What would Dr. Freud have to say now, in 2014? If he were alive today, he would no longer be influenced by Nietzsche and Darwin, but by Marx and McLuhan. It would no longer be Victorian, Christian values he’d blame for collective insanity, but the technophilia of our capitalist empire. He would see capitalism—the global religion of today—as the new opiate of the masses, propagating mass delusion and promising to immunize us from suffering with an endless supply of shiny, new things. The worst part (beyond the fact that it makes manifest Thanatos, the death-drive, on a planetary scale) is that capitalism fails to keep its promise. And so we are reduced to “psychical infantilism,” crawling desperately toward the mirage-like horizon of satiety where riches, happiness and self-actualization remain forever just out of reach. This voracious desire for more has toxic waste products—greed, jealousy and rage—which seep into the rivers of the psyche and deteriorate our capacities for reason and compassion. The resultant phenomena is a dangerous condition which Freud called, “the psychological misery of the mass” . . . something we are all far too familiar with . . .
We are currently living through a new epidemic of insanity … one that’s far darker, more vast and troubling than anything the pioneers of psychoanalysis could have even imagined. 60 million people in the United States, approximately a fifth of the population, are suffering from mental illness—mood disorders, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, OCD, ADD, PTSD and the rest. Though the symptoms differ, it’s no longer possible to diagnose or treat this collective insanity at the level of the individual. There is a madness in the air affecting us all.
The DSM-V named dozens more mental illnesses into existence this year but we still don’t have a word to describe the collective insanity we’re stewing in, nor any insight into where it’s coming from, nor how to get out. The best of us know that we will never get better so long as we live in a sick culture.
Looking at America’s symptoms—obesity, hoarding, eating disorders, addictions of every kind from cigarettes to pills—it’s clear that we remain hopelessly orally fixated. Remember—everyone in Rome got fat before the great empire fell…