Richard Lichtman: The Violent Disorder of Our Public Mind

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Since all human occurrences take place in society, it is obviously a truism that all insanity must, in some sense, be social. On the other hand, if we assert that insanity is due to biological factors then it might seem that insanity can be due to causes that are not in any sense social. However, even the designations that we apply to human activity derive from various social institutions and their forms of mental interpretation, so once again the social penetrates our understanding of insanity.

However, I wish to argue here for a more robust account of social insanity. I wish to argue that not only can individuals be dysfunctional and pathological but that societies can be irrational, self-destructive and given to denial, self-deception and violent self-contamination. Freud knew as much when he asked at the conclusion of Civilization and its Discontents:

… would not the diagnosis be justified that many systems of civilization – or epochs of it – possibly even the whole of humanity – have become “neurotic” under the pressure of civilizing trends?

Nevertheless, it is true that in our time the term “insanity” tends to refer to a private malady. We lack an appropriate term for disorders of the public mind for the fundamental reason that we lack any notion of the “public mind” itself. And the reason for this disappearance is not that the phenomenon itself has ceased to exist but that public consciousness has become so fragmented and atomic that this collective form of consciousness tends to lack self-awareness. But this dissolution is itself the very form of public consciousness that is so important for us to grasp.

To see more articles by Richard Lichtman and other scholars, visit Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project.

For fragmentation, like loneliness or isolation, is only possible in society. It is only when we compete with each other for power and domination, when each of us comes to regard others as impediments to our own realization, all of which are of, course, social forms of action, that we experience ourselves as simultaneously individual and social, encountering acutely the very opposition between our individuality and our social nature. Of course, the most terrible forms of individual pathology occur through the most terrible forms of social chaos and despair.

It was not always so. In the 19th century terms like “alienation,” “anomie,” “disenchantment” and “ideology” referred to pathologies of social life and public mind as well as to individual dysfunctions. For many of the great sociologists, men like Marx and Durkheim, society had a nature that was not reducible to the sum of its individual members. Nor, of course, did it exist independently of them. It is not an easy phenomenon to conceptualize, but we need finally to ask what we can possibly understand by this term.

The “public mind” is not the sum of individual minds, but their source and presupposition. It is not a universal archetype, for it is specific to each distinct social order. It is not a concrete, innate system of any kind, for it cannot exist independently of the various social relations that activate its potentiality.

The public mind is the pattern of meanings and the system of feelings, desires and aspirations established in the codes, rules and symbols embedded in the objective structures of social, economic, historical and political life. Subjectively, it is the set of assumptions, convictions, beliefs and values that ground the shared sense of social existence of the multitudinous groups that constitute a given social order.

We have difficulty grasping the sense of public mind because in our time the collectivity that exists is obscured by the illusion that the individual is the source rather than the consequence of the culture of capitalism. But all we need to convince ourselves of the existence of social reality is to pass through a significant economic crisis in which we cannot find work because the capitalist cannot locate consumers for his production while his plant lies idle and its machines useless; the commodities they might make available cannot find the workers to operate the machines that would produce them or the consumers to purchase them. This is an irrational system, one in which everything that is required depends on other characteristics that themselves cannot function without the contribution of those aspects of the potential structure that remain actually idle. So, one might say, nothing can be what it is unless everything else is what it was intended to be; and yet, the same can be said for every aspect of the idle system that therefore fails to function.

At the core of the failure of capitalism is a systematic contradiction between the two most fundamental organizing tendencies of our contemporary life. On the one hand we live within a system of capitalism while, on the other, we simultaneously conceptualize ourselves in accordance with the ideals of democracy. These two structures are, however, completely opposed to each other; they are in a fateful contradiction.

For capitalism is an economic system based on institutionalized greed, self-interest, accumulation, expansion, domination and disregard of the lives of others. It is a system of power in blatant opposition to democracy, which is an order of values that exalts simultaneously the individual’s uniqueness and capacity for cooperative relationships organized on behalf of justice, equality, dignity and universal freedom.

How has The United States been able to integrate two systems so fundamentally at odds with each other, so antagonistic to each other’s motive and meaning, so radically in opposition? When all the falsehood and terrible mystification is pierced and suspended, when the truth fights through the veil of manipulated pretense and self-serving hypocrisy, casting aside, if only briefly, the horrible facade of false consciousness and organized dishonesty, one overriding fact looms portentously above the manipulated mystification of the populace.

How has the United States been able to integrate the contradictory tendencies of capitalist exploitation and democratic idealism? The answer is simple, pathetic and unavoidable: The ostensible integration has never taken place. Since its earliest history and with growing force and increasing speed, the United States has embraced the elitist domination of capitalist power and cloaked itself in the illusion of democratic self-righteousness. “Democracy,” or its semblance, has been shaped to support the ravages of capitalist exploitation, while providing the illusion of its devotion to restraining and remaking the ills of economic malice.

Of course, this assertion needs to be supported by all the claims and counterclaims that are finally called upon to provide assurance. However, simply cast your gaze at the fraction of the populace that owns and controls the essential means of social domination, not even the 1% but the 1/10th of 1%, whose wealth and consequent power is more than equivalent to that of the struggling remainder of the citizenry. It is an exercise in despair to explore the whole range of actions that are fatefully skewed in the direction of this ghastly minority and its capacity to serve its interests at the expense of the lives of others whose daily existence is not constituted by a choice among irrelevant luxuries but the need to keep from falling into abject despair, anxiety, depression, illness and death.

Is there any wonder that there is disorder in the land; that lives are made hollow, meaningless and filled with an undying rage against one’s self for failing, against others for what seems their superior gratification, for life as a whole that has promised so much and delivered so little. One inhales failure with every painful breath, or in keeping with the splitting of life between the power and the purpose to which we previously alluded, one retrenches, contracts, lives more and more into one’s self, while the world beyond our private isolation grows ever more massive and monstrous until its slips in through the crevices of our passive surrender and threatens to take even more of us than we had ever realized was vulnerable.

Is it any wonder that terror and violence prowl about the wasteland of so many lives, or that the larger majority succumbs to apathy and paralysis? One could go on listing indefinitely the acts of dehumanized destruction, incomprehensible violence and deranged terror that transpire out of motives that neither its perpetrators, its victims nor observing savants can comprehend.

But stop for a moment and ask yourself: What is the meaning of this hatred and cold extermination? Ultimately, hatred and violence, murder and mayhem are modes of reconstruction in a world that has failed its most vulnerable, even more than its most comfortable.

Why do I link reconstruction with hatred and violence?  To destroy is to remake the universe, to eliminate from it something – not necessarily what confronts one – but what that fragile presence before us symbolizes to its enraged and often deranged adversary. Violence contracts what cannot be embraced or even expanded; it minimizes what cannot be enlarged or shared: one’s powers, one’s love, one’s creative affirmation of the humanity of life in a world that bears the possibility of transcendence in beauty.

In the passage I previously cited from Freud, he spoke of the destructive possibilities of “civilization.” That assertion is in keeping with his tendency to universalize the conditions of life in his time. Reification is his constant nemesis. He pays insufficient attention to the diversity of societies and the importance of their differences. It is more misleading than insightful to trace human failures back to civilization as such. For Freud, of course, the conflict between human existence and civilization is ubiquitous and permanent, as is the conflict within human beings between their tendency to love and draw together against their tendency to die and destroy.

Marx functions with a different paradigm:

The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual … appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole … Only in the eighteenth century, in “civil society,” do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means toward his private purposes, as external necessity.

So society confronts the individual and, rather than being a member of that social whole, Marx notes, the individual appears to himself or herself in “civil society” as an independent individual standing outside of society.


And Marx notes something that the advocates of capitalist society are most often blind to:

        … private interest is already a socially determined interest, which can be achieved only within the conditions laid down by society … the reciprocal and all-sided dependence of individuals who are indifferent to one another …

“Indifferent dependence” cannot be the foundation of communal concern nor the root of empathy toward others. It is much more likely to foment conflict and exploitation, rage and repulsion, self-hatred and unending envy.

From the beginning of American history, human relations were constructed through a series of antagonisms: the European settlers against native Americans and Mexican populations; human beings against nature and those same human beings divided again by privilege and power exercised against each other. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States begins:

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, emerged from their villages into the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log.

They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawk’s bells … They do not bear arms, and do not know them. Their spears are made of cane … They would make fine servants …With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

Columbus wrote further:

As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives    by force in order that they might learn and might give me information …

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? Following that information, he set out to accumulate slaves. He later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

Zinn writes:

Among the Arawaks mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards.

The story of Columbus the heroic explorer is still the iconic legend told to the greatest majority of school children in the United States. But the myth of Columbus is not merely for the innocents of the country: Even such authorities as Samuel Eliot Morison, the “distinguished” Harvard historian, endorsed the legend of Columbus’ greatness. In his book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, Morison describes the enslavement and murder of the native populations and notes: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”

But Morrison had set out to ennoble Columbus and so he concludes:

He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great – his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to land beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty … and discouragement.  But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most astonishing and essential of all his qualities – his seamanship.

In other words, though he engaged in “complete genocide,” and missed his original mark by several thousand miles, he was an admirable sailor and that, in Morison’s eyes, counts for everything.

But why do I linger on Columbus since he was not an American but a Spaniard, raised in a foreign creed and of a different culture?

Morison, however, was an American and a distinguished one at that, who in his extravagant praise of Columbus reveals the deep and rotting soil from which he rose to his position of eminence among American historians, who simultaneously were called upon to establish his preeminence. In reading Morison, it is not Columbus that we primarily discover, but the long established American ideal of dominance and power. As Zinn reminds us:

What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English to the Powhatans and Pequots of America.

And it is what we have been doing for more than 500 years through the enslavements, invasions, murders, plunderings, dissolutions, eviscerations and wholesale slaughters of those whose lives and labors and territories and resources we coveted to the point of immolation. From the natives of early Virginia and Massachusetts to the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, transformed into shadows of their once living corporeal selves, to the more than 500,000 Iranian civilians and the still uncounted Afghanis and Pakistanis we are still in the process of saving from themselves, we have witnessed an unending baptism of freedom in blood and rotting flesh.

However, it is not the individual atrocities that are the essence of this history but the pattern of imperialist carnage; the underlying structure of dehumanized self-aggrandizement that is most to be explored, comprehended and expunged. It is the fundamental structure of the capitalist system that produces the atrocities, not the atrocities that produce the system. For the atrocities reveal as their cause a set of interrelationships that require and provide for each other – what is referred to as a dialectical system. No aspect of this system can exist independently of the others and so each reveals something of the remainder when it is explored.

The basic aspects of capitalism are: 1) exploitation, 2) expansion, 3) access to state power, 4) enhanced technology, and 5) control of the conscious and unconscious processes of the mentality of the populace.

“Exploitation” signifies that the labor of workers is owned and controlled by those who possess the means by which their wealth is produced. Given this power over wealth, the dominant class keeps a larger and larger portion for itself and returns to the workers only enough to keep them sufficiently vital and aware, so as to maintain the capacity to provide additional labor. At times, when the working class is politically vigorous, it may win concessions and at other times, such as our time now, its share of the total wealth will decline precipitously. In other words, the level of the workers’ wellbeing will fluctuate around a norm established by the underlying capacity of the capitalist to control capital and, through this control, the proportion of value accruing to the workers on the one hand and the capitalists on the other.

“Expansion” involves a structural and a geographical aspect. The capitalist system operates on the basis of continuing accumulation of profit. This follows from the fact that the system is competitive and, whether given capitalists embrace this condition or not, if they refuse to compete for a greater share of this wealth, they will find themselves driven from the marketplace and replaced by a new agent who is perfectly willing to take up the missing opportunity. It is not personal temperament or greed that produces capitalism, but capitalism that produces competitive greed. It must, of course, be the case that capitalism could not have originated absent a character structure that was attracted to personal advantage. But this characteristic was in some part the result of a desire for survival rather than enhancement and could not have persisted unless it was embodied in an expanding structure that encompassed more and more of social life.

Expansion and exploitation feed off each other: one as a dynamic process and the other as a structure that the process tends to establish. And everything that might be said about the domestic nature of a given capitalist country needs also to be repeated on the plane of international affairs. So, the world economic system is continually more subject to the voracious interests of various competing countries and the conflicts and outright warfare among them. All the while, individual capitalist firms give rise to oligopolies and monopolies that carry on the procedures of competitive exploitation on an ever more enormous and dangerous scale.

With continued growth, the economy comes more and more to depend on the resources, agencies and directives of the state, which becomes more and more essential as the economic system becomes more complex and requires a “center” that can coordinate the vast arrangement of activities that define modern capitalism: the defense and redefinition of property, the nature of taxation, the distribution of profit, the continuing support for innovation, the situating of labor, the form and content of immigration and numerous other activities that require a central agent to relate each of these activities to the others. And finally, and perhaps most to the point, the state can maintain an illusion of impartiality that defends the system against what would otherwise be the obvious charge of support of capital against the other dimensions of social life.

We should never forget that the tendencies and pressures that exist within the capitalist system have their counterpart in the forms of culture, human nature and psychological formations that pervade the social life of these societies. For example, the move to expansion has its replica in the lives of various segments of the population that sustain it. To maintain and enhance as much of one’s self with as little expenditure as possible is not merely the admonition prescribed by the commercial system but is, simultaneously, the purported insight carried throughout the emotional and motivational structure of personal, psychological and social life.

Take without giving is one of the doctrines defining male culture, in which one’s capacity to love or what passes for it is hoarded, and the accumulation of the love of others is an indication of a weakness in them that can be manipulated to one’s advantage. Need for the love of others must be disguised by aggrandizement and apparent indifference and, consequently, of success in the economic struggle for love. The prevailing prescription of male culture is self-enhancement and the minimization of the resources, powers and defenses of others: greater wealth, greater access to dominance, greater sexual potency, a greater range of powers used to control others and a greater system of defenses to keep these others who are engaged in reciprocal attack upon one’s self from succeeding. However, to accumulate without return soon becomes a wearisome task in which the value being sought and hoarded loses its significance as the other who is manipulated through this unequal exchange soon loses value and becomes, in fact, instrumentally useful but humanly worthless.

It is through the myriad forms of manipulation of others that the self loses its human potentiality. The contradiction between power and ideal with which I began these remarks has the dreadful consequence of placing one forever on the precipice of self-condemnation and social exclusion. The values that form one’s ideal self are incapable of realization, and the individual therefore comes to assume responsibility for the persistence of its failure. In his brief account of Western attitudes toward death Philippe Aires notes:

Today the adult experiences sooner or later – and increasingly it is sooner – the feeling that he has failed, that his adult life has failed to achieve any of the promises of adolescence.

Adolescence is, of course, the period of life when idealism prevails, as the difficulties that stand between the individual and his or her fulfillment are not understood to derive from the larger society within which individuals are formed and measured rather than from the unique characteristics of these burgeoning individuals themselves.

Nor is this the conclusion of one’s sense of failure; there is a further fact less often noted and commented upon: Individuals participate significantly in their own decline and ultimate demise. How does such self-destruction come about?

When we use terms like “masochism” we usually take for granted that we are speaking of individual pathology. However, consider that every social system is obviously inseparable from the channeled energies of its participants. In fact, each system is the embodiment of these energies, so organized as to form a larger and more persistent whole. So it is that the failure of our society, the harm it imposes on us, is in unavoidable measure the effort and product of our own lives. It is because we act out the forms of personhood required by our society that it is able to accumulate its power to force us into acting against ourselves. So masochism is not an individual occurrence but the basic imposition by which we construct the processes that deconstruct us. Constructing the powers of a destructive society, we deconstruct the ideal possibilities inherent in ourselves.

Of course, we are not self-consciously aware of this fact, but it occurs as it does regardless of our self-conscious ignorance. We make the social world that is our undoing. We produce the institutions and structures that maintain our very subordination. Our energies, which we define in terms of self-aggrandizement and rational self-interest, are beyond our understanding, the very opposite of what they initially claim. Our vaunted self-interest is self-denial, our cherished self-realization, the destruction of what we hold most dear.

It was not only Marx and his conservative counterparts who sensed the turning of liberalism into its opposite. It was in 1776 that Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, in which he argued as a thoughtful economic historian:

Not only would free, competitive markets direct the employment of capital to those industries in which it would be more productive, but they would also result, again through the invisible hand directing selfish profit maximizing into socially beneficial channels …   

Or as Smith put the matter, speaking of the ordinary participant in the burgeoning capitalist market:

  … he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of greatest value, he intends only his own gain,   in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end that was no part of his intention.

Some 120 years later, Max Weber, a thinker of considerable brilliance and one more sympathetic to capitalism, having separated himself from his usual detached objectivity, noted with uncharacteristic passion and eloquence at the conclusion of The Protest Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism … with irresistible force. In [the Puritan] view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of “the saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage…

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance.  For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that is has attained a level never before achieved.

So, at the dawn of the capitalist era, Adam Smith could see in the conjunction of individual self-interests the promise of a greater well-being than economic activity directed by a conscious intelligence could provide. But at the turn of the 20th century Smith’s optimism had been transformed into an iron cage, of which “it might be truly said: Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”

So the ostensive rationality of capitalist triumph is transformed into the alienation of the human condition and the expectation of progressive achievement into a morass of violence directed at others and eventually even at one’s self. The murders at Newtown cannot be understood when separated from the long declining loss of rationality and its hope that marks the inversion of the liberal ideal. In short, they cannot be separated from our mass murders in Iraq, our droning of innocent families in Afghanistan, our unwillingness to hold the latest murderers of the dream of economic well-being responsible for their onslaught against the once vital fantasy of the bright rewards of diligent labor and financial probity.

As the dream dies, its debris spreads across the wasted land. To fight against the wounded apathy that blights so many more of us, what can be so exciting as the promising transcendence of this miserable world in a flash of apparent liberation delivered through the muzzle of a gun?

Note how many of these mass murders end in suicide, as though the promised moment of god-like power has been achieved, never to be reproduced again. In the life of such murderers this moment is intended to redeem their anguished trivialization. After the destruction of the other, it is vital to escape the mundane forces that have given rise to one’s original rage. The world has been remade and one must leave it as such. One has entered the life of the vanished through one’s own miraculous power to transform these others and one’s self from the living into the dead. In murder, one enters the land of the transformed, lies with them, their life now absent, now void, as is one’s own. This “nullity,” as Weber referred to our contemporary condition, has realized the fulfillment of his prophecy in the horror of obliteration. When terror becomes the all too common currency of state and family, culture and sport, it should not surprise us that it finally comes to rest in the blind horror of individual life and death.