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The importance of repression Philip Rieff predicted that therapy culture would end in barbarism

Reading Philip Rieff (right) is like "chewing ball-bearings". Credit: Duane Howell/The Denver Post/Getty

Reading Philip Rieff (right) is like "chewing ball-bearings". Credit: Duane Howell/The Denver Post/Getty


September 29, 2021   7 mins

A little over a half-century ago, the sociologist Philip Rieff announced the “triumph of the therapeutic” with his 1966 book of the same name. Perhaps because the phrase itself is so striking, it has been widely cited but only rarely understood.

It seems intuitively obvious, almost tautological, to say that we live in a “therapeutic culture”. Even if we no longer speak of our id or superego, our everyday language is filled with pop-psychiatric jargon — trauma, grief, and abuse; narcissism and “borderline personality” and PTSD. When Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described her experience during the January 6 riot to her followers on Instagram, she spoke of her “trauma” and her status as a “survivor” of sexual assault, while accusing Republicans who downplayed the event of using the “tactics of abusers”. Not that she’s alone: the conservative Daily Signal has accused AOC herself of “gaslighting” the public over rising crime rates.

But Rieff’s point was not merely that we had come to view ourselves in therapeutic terms, supplanting older moral and religious modes of evaluation. He was making an argument about the wider implications of this shift in perspective — a shift that he considered to be, without exaggeration, the most important cultural development in the West since the Enlightenment. Indeed, Rieff saw it as nothing short of an apocalypse. Modern therapeutic culture, in his view, had become what he called in his later writings an “anti-culture”: a negation of the very idea of culture that, because it set itself in opposition to everything that had traditionally given human lives meaning, was inherently unstable. It could not reproduce itself indefinitely, and would be succeeded, Rieff predicted, by barbarism and chaos.

Although chiefly remembered today for his brief marriage to Susan Sontag, Rieff was a brilliant, if idiosyncratic, thinker who developed a strange and powerful critique of modern culture. Born in Chicago, in 1922, to Lithuanian-Jewish parents, he flirted with Marxism in his early years — during World War II, he was surveilled by the FBI as a potential subversive —  before shifting his attention to Freud. His first book, 1959’s Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, was a popular success that offered a revisionist account of Freud arguing for his importance as the premier cultural theorist of modernity.

The Triumph of the Therapeutic appeared seven years later, in which Rieff examined Freudian psychoanalysis by contrasting it with the theories of three of his “successor-critics”: Wilhelm Reich, Carl Jung, and D.H. Lawrence. Each of these three, Rieff argued, recognised that Freud had dealt a near-fatal blow to traditional religious morality but were unsatisfied with his refusal to construct a new ethical system in its place; each, in their own way, sought to use the techniques of therapy to create a new surrogate faith. Triumph was also the first glimpse of the polemical anti-modernism that would characterise Rieff’s later work. Though he continued to affect a pose of scholarly detachment, he was clearly disturbed by the apparent victory of the Freudian worldview. As the social critic Norman O Brown, a fan, said of the book: “instead of souls we have neuroses, instead of sacraments we have shows.”

Rieff’s later work would prove reactionary, hermetic, and sparse. In 1973, he published Fellow Teachers, a jeremiad against the counterculture and what he considered to be the degradation of the “sacred” institution of the university. It won a handful of admirers, including Brown and George Steiner, but it was too strange for anything like mass appeal. Rieff subsequently retreated from public life for the remainder of his career. He taught, published little, and concentrated on research for a magnum opus in which he hoped to give a systematic account of his theory of human culture. He eventually abandoned the project and passed what he had completed over to former students. The results were finally published as the trilogy Sacred Order/Social Order, the first volume of which, My Life Among the Deathworks, came out in 2006, the year of Rieff’s death.

Thanks to the cryptic style in which it is written, Sacred Order/Social Order is a tremendously difficult work to read — one critic compared it to “chewing ball bearings; every once in a while there is a cherry”. In it, Rieff does, finally, offer something like a schematic for his theory of culture, delivered in strange expository passages sandwiched in between his close readings of “deathworks”, the sociologist’s term for the modern works of art and literature (Joyce, Kafka, Nietzsche, etc.) which have served to naturalise what he considered to be the therapeutic rebellion against authority.

All societies, in Rieff’s telling, are sacred, in that they point to an authority beyond themselves. The task of “culture” is to “transliterate otherwise invisible sacred orders into their visible modalities — social orders”. This “transliteration” occurs by rendering the moral commandments given in advance by a culture’s highest authority — God, in the case of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim civilisation; the primitive vitality of nature in the case of classical pagan civilisation — into terms that people can understand and internalise, so as to regulate their behaviour in line with their culture’s conception of good and evil. Ensuring that this transliteration takes place is the task of the cultural elite (or “officer class”), who control both the character-forming institutions and the symbolic language through which commandments are expressed within the secular world.

Rieff believed that the commandments of sacred authority always come originally and primarily in the form of “interdicts”, or prohibitions — “Thou shalt not” sleep with your mother or covet your neighbour’s wife. “No” comes before “yes,” and “no” is the ultimate origin of culture. It is only by first restricting the legitimate range of behaviours, and in particular the expressions of instinct or libidinal energy, that cultures can be said to operate on their members. Culture is repression.

Why did Rieff consider repression primary? As Antonius AW Zondervan explains in his excellent Sociology and the Sacred, Rieff came to this idea through his study of Freud. In Freud’s theory, repression is triggered when an idea is so intolerable or offensive that it would cause the conscious self — the ego — immense psychic distress to become conscious of it. But, Rieff asked, intolerable or offensive to what? Initially, Freud might have answered: to the superego, the part of our psyche that represents internalised social morality. But, Rieff pointed out, Freud later came to believe that repression was not merely a function of superego prohibitions but could also be triggered by an unconscious part of the ego itself.

Rieff thought Freud’s admission — of the existence of an unconscious ego repressing intolerable thoughts — should revolutionise our understanding of the psyche. It meant that the “interdicts” are not merely “social morality” but are sunk so deeply into the structure of the self as to effectively constitute it; they are what shape a formless mass of instincts into a person. They represent a primal, unconscious morality whose origin Rieff traced to the sacred commandments at the heart of our culture’s religious tradition. We can obey or transgress them but never abolish them.

All this may seem quite esoteric, but it is important for understanding Rieff’s account of therapeutic culture. The modern West, in his telling, is the first culture in history that has attempted to deny the legitimacy of the interdicts and to live without some form of sacred authority. Therapy is our means of getting away with this denial. The therapeutic ethos teaches us to overcome the guilt and shame, especially around sexuality, prompted by what we have come to regard as the unrealistic, unhealthy, and oppressive moral prohibitions inherited from Christianity. But because, for Rieff, these prohibitions are a core part of our psyche, therapeutic culture can only ever lead to their transgression or negation, never to their genuine overcoming. He believed, for instance, that sexual liberation was seen as a positive ideal purely because it transgressed the inherited Christian virtue of chastity. It was good because it was the opposite of what our religion used to teach; it had no positive value in itself.

Indeed, this is how Rieff came to understand our culture war. He believed that the Western elite had abdicated its responsibility to continue transmitting moral commandments, instead embracing an ethic of liberation and transgression designed to free themselves from the too-strict demands of the interdicts. But because this cultural shift had penetrated deeply only among elites, the result was a constant war between the “officer class” and the population at large, who still clung to a basically traditional conception of the moral order. Elite cultural output — both the modernist high art that Rieff analysed and the pop culture of our own day — had become a series of “deconversion therapies” attempting to train the lower classes out of their supposedly primitive superstitions, which in his telling were actually the vestiges of a sacred impulse toward transcendence.

For Rieff, of course, such efforts were doomed to failure. Even if the therapeutic elite succeeded in loosening the hold of the interdicts, they could not create new ones because their moral codes referred to no transcendent authority. Injunctions to be nice and rational, or not to be a “shitty person”, simply cannot burrow their way into our unconscious selves in the same way as commands from God. But without these commands to bind us together into a “saving larger self”, we are subject to persistent existential unease — a small, nagging sense that there should be something more to life, some higher meaning, than earning money and consuming sensory experiences. Indeed, to live according to the therapeutic ethos is, according to Rieff, to deny our nature as human beings. We crave the limitations, and the clarity and meaning, provided by a genuine authoritative culture, and we cannot live without them indefinitely.

Rieff’s is a strange sort of counsel. As both Christopher Lasch and George Scialabba have noted in essays about his work, he is an atheistic defender of the social and existential necessity of religion; Brown compared him, with some justice, to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, armed with the tools of psychoanalysis rather than Catholic dogma. Others might be inclined to place him alongside Oswald Spengler as a blackpilled mystic of Western decline.

But it is hard not to notice certain resonances between Rieff’s doomsaying and some of the stranger political developments of our own time. On the Left, the rise of wokeness or “cancel culture” can be read as the expression of a longing, among the children of our therapeutic culture, to revive some idea of Good and Evil, to erect taboos and restrictions and impose a new moral order. On the Right, the cultural and intellectual energy is with those who, whether they speak in religious terms or not, denounce the “degeneracy” of the modern West and long for a restoration of traditional authority. Even something as strange as the QAnon conspiracy theory expresses something of the primitive religiosity Rieff believed was built into our psyches: faced with a world they believe is out of joint, Q believers posit an elite cabal guilty of one of the few crimes, paedophilia, for which the old interdicts retain their full force. And that is to say nothing of the results of America’s efforts to transplant therapeutic culture into Afghanistan.

Rieff predicted that the logical endpoint of therapeutic culture was an orgy of violence — “Immediately behind the hippies stand the thugs,” as he wrote in Fellow Teachers. Such an orgy is still nowhere on the horizon. But I suspect we should take seriously his suggestion that somewhere deep in our minds is a longing for, or at least a receptivity to, the demands of the sacred, which also happen to be the one thing that our culture seems genuinely comfortable repressing. And as good therapeutics, we can always count on the return of the repressed.


Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet

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Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

“Culture is repression”
That’s an odd way of viewing something that unites people. I would prefer to state it as:
“culture is self-control”
Creating harmony in society through personal responsibility is very positive. ‘Expressing yourself’ to the detriment of everyone else is selfish and unconstructive.
I think this concept of therapy (as opposed to medical conditions) is a foreign language to the post-war generation who had to just ‘get on with it’. I’m puzzled by an advert to help “people who are struggling with their feelings”. I can understand struggles with thoughts: but learning to become an independent adult meant ignoring my feelings and “getting on with it”!
Am I alone here?

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Re “Culture is repression” v’s “culture is self control”, surely it’s a question of what sounds better rhetorically in terms of the essay to come + it’s highly likely our “self-control” would be Freud’s “repression”.
I agree with you otherwise.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Dave Corby
Dave Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

I agree with most of what you say here but culture is not self-control. Culture is control imposed upon you which you either believe is just people restricting you – who have no business doing so – or you believe that it comes from the One who made you and so comes with authority.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

Culture is an ever evolving social contract between those who choose to live together and want to signify their belonging to the tribe.

Everett Maddox
Everett Maddox
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Pretty obvious not everyone agrees and does not want to subjugate their rights for what others think they should be allowed. Ever evolving social ideas denie that foundational tenants glue successful cultures together.

J Hop
J Hop
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Respectfully, the two are not mutually exclusive.
As somebody who actually had a mother with a personality disorder and someone who has been actually diagnosed with PTSD in the past, I’m glad there is a language to discuss these things. Also, healing requires that you both a) recoginze and address your feelings and b) take responsibility for them. Repressing my very real traumas and going the stoic route gave me psychosymatic illness, depression and anxiety. Facing the abuse I endured head on and working through the feelings is how you give up their power over you and let them go. Ironically, by refusing to address unresolved past events to avoid “living in the past”, you truly get stuck in the past.
That said, healing is 100% the responsibility of the person who was injured. Was it fair that I was abused by my parents who were damaged and disordered and caused me psychological harm as a result? No. Is it my responsibility to heal those damages so I can be a healthy and contributing member of society, and more importantly, NOT create a second generation of damanged children? Yes, absolutely. If my parents had taken responsibility for their injury I wouldn’t have been in my situation to begin with. This stuff goes intergenerational until someome stops it.
I think the problem is that we tend to speak in either or. Either you go the stoic route and repress everything, which really doesn’t resolve things and often leads to poor mental health. OR the current route seems to be to indulge in your hurts and blame others instead of taking responsibility for your actions. True emotional health is respecting and recognizing your feelings and emotions with compassion, then taking full responsibility for your actions and responses to those feelings.
Example: “I recognize that I have anger towards my mother for abandoning me and this job loss is triggering a lot of those feelings, but I’m going to sublimate that into a vigourous jog this morning and talk it through with my supportive partner instead of yelling at my children, getting drunk and hating on all managers for being “exploitative”.
Mental heath professionals enouraging emotional IQ by recognizing and dealing with feelings is the norm, but that many are now are encouraging a victim mentality is criminal. I was in pyschoanalysis and my analyst did not encourage this, and I think analysts are less likely to than social workers. Which is ironic as it’s Freud here who’s being accused. I don’t think he ever andorsed indulging in victimhood, merely not denying it. My take.

Last edited 2 years ago by J Hop
Cat Fan
Cat Fan
2 years ago
Reply to  J Hop

Completely agree. Your comment reminded me of Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoffs’ book, ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’. Lukianoff himself has been through CBT therapy and the first chapter or so of the book deals with the difference between CBT therapy working to help an individual work through the issue they have in order to help them function in their daily life, and comparing and contrasting this to modern day ‘victimology’ which encourages individuals to see the world as hostile and makes the person less resilient and unable to deal with everyday situations, nevermind a setback.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  J Hop

Brilliant. This is the key bit:
 Either you go the stoic route and repress everything, which really doesn’t resolve things and often leads to poor mental health. OR the current route seems to be to indulge in your hurts and blame others instead of taking responsibility for your actions. True emotional health is respecting and recognizing your feelings and emotions with compassion, then taking full responsibility for your actions and responses to those feelings.”

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  J Hop

I think this is all interesting but missing the main point, the fascinating idea that the whole of Western culture has become dominated by the idea, and ideal, of removing repression. And, though I don’t see any way of returning the genie to the bottle, and I am not a believer in God, there has been a consequent huge loss of ‘transcendent’ meaning, and cultural confidence. Hence, – one outcome among many – we see all our previously honoured artists and thinkers being reduced to ‘old white racists and misogynists’.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

So we need to build a new “god” – a believable but transcendent authority to which all can subscribe. That will not be easy. Maybe our societies have outgrown our ability to do this – perhaps we need to be smaller.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Weren’t we all more similar?

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I adamently disagree that artists and thinkers have been reduced to “white racists and misogynists”. For one thing you seem to imply that all artists and thinkers are male.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  J Hop

I think you misunderstand Stoicism.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  J Hop

Very, very well said.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

It brings to mind The director & actress Lena Dunham who is the poster child for the therapeutic generation. She exposes EVERYTHING, nothing is withheld or repressed. No emotions are controlled. There is no cultured personality within. It’s narcissism in its purest form.

Everett Maddox
Everett Maddox
2 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Nail on the head!!

Philip May
Philip May
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

‘Expressing yourself’ to the detriment of everyone else is selfish and unconstructive.
I think that this a quite incisive statement. Rightly or wrongly I couldn’t help but make a connection with free jazz as typified by Anthony Braxton and others.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip May

Hello Philip, although even jazz improvisation moves within the boundaries of the musicians working together, so it’s not detrimental but creatively harmonious, I think!

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Exactly.

colledge.david
colledge.david
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

No youÂŽre not alone. We live in the disenchanted world now; but that may not be forever

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Feelings are useful as information, but we should only let them inform us, not control us. I think that’s what you meant by “getting on with it.” Yes, I feel resentful that my baby has woken me up yet again in the middle of the night, but so what? I need to get out of bed and take good care of that baby -feelings be damned.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

Very interesting indeed – with a good deal of truth. It is the failure to settle for life as it is and as it must be; the pursuit instead of dreams and / or immediate gratification, whether this pursuit is successful or not, which has led us into the incoherence and “anomie” of today – and our overarching religious and cultural order once helped in that process of “settlement” or acceptance.
And yes, the left is moving into the gap created by the vanishing of old culture, but its restrictions and repressions are not applicable to human beings. Instead of restricting passion, it restricts economic activity; instead of policing conduct, it polices speech and so on. It is like a building constructed across, instead of along, a series of fault-lines in human nature.
The left therefore imposes massive coercion, which has as its goal the destruction and transformations of those “fault-lines” of nature. At first, this included the old, natural division represented by ethnicity; it went on to contradict the established hierarchy of orientations and now it questions biological maleness and femaleness, not to mention reality itself.
And this is its fatal appeal to “liberals” – it uses force and state control in the effort to make people individually “liberal”, which involves – oddly enough – a complete inversion of Liberal Individualism. Instead of allowing particular, enlightened persons to emerge through their home society towards a summit, from which other societies can be seen and appreciated, the left wants to smash the structure through which these exceptional people ascend, imagining that by doing so it will “liberalise” everyone. Of course, it merely restores barbarism.
The key point however is that proper societies are ends in themselves, setting rules from unattainable heaven and allowing that people will obey, disobey, flourish and fail as nature dictates; “revolutionary” societies justify themselves as forced collective efforts of “liberation”, imposing a bewildering array of rules, tweaked and intensified at accelerating rates in the name of a heaven to be. The first represents sanity, the second degeneration.

Last edited 2 years ago by Simon Denis
Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Beautifully put.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Lale

Many thanks.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

There is nothing wrong with psychotherapy, in my humble opinion. Talking therapies work, and I can personally attest to that. The problem comes with the promotion of feeling over thought, and the promotion of emoting as a response to the trials and tribulations of life. Having a healthy emotional life is good; being swamped by emotionality and being emotionally incontinent is awful for everyone concerned.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Lale

‘Promoting feelings over thought’ is the Modus Operandi of the USA Democrat Party today. AOC and her tearful histrionics at the southern border and her ‘trauma’ on Jan 6 even though she was not in the Capitol building. Rep Cori Bush who ‘feels’ strongly about eviction legislation because she ‘feels’ it’s important rather than analyzes whether the program is good for the entire country to extend. There are so many instances where MOSTLY FEMALES are ‘feeling stuff’ but are not doing the necessary and important job of the serious thinking that a country requires in the interest of all of its citizens.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Agreed. One of the great sadnesses of my life (now 70) is that I supported the whole ‘equality feminist’ agenda because I genuinely believed (and still do) that women and men are of equal value, need equal opportunities, bring different things to the table etc.
What I hadn’t expected is that some women-in-power would change laws to demonise men, break families etc.
To do this they have preyed on our natural tendency to support the weak and vulnerable by converting much of everyday-life into a ‘women are vulnerable and need special protection by the state’ society. The shift from facts to feelings is part of that deception.
Women get the sympathy, the changed laws etc, but at the price of no longer being seen as powerful, self-determined etc.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

Nah.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

I disagree that “feelings over thought is the modus operandi of the democratic party”. There are certainly some within it who do that but what about MTG?!!

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Lale

Well said.

Dave Corby
Dave Corby
2 years ago

Fantastic essay. I am saving this for multiple readings because there is a profound depth that I do not want to lose.
Seriously, this is partly a proof that we have a God shaped hole that must be filled.
When we try and fill it with man made philosophies we are never satisfied and die a slow death – while trying desperately to dull the pain along the way.
Perhaps I would not say that we need to be ‘repressed’ but more a need to return our hearts to where we do not want to do the things we should not do, and want to do the things we should.
Instead of a need for repression – its actually a need for salvation.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

Who is the “we”. Not me.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

Our narcissistic cult of the self is just what it means to be in a state of perpetual infantilism. The state is our mummy and daddy. It’s never our fault, the state exists to fix it for us and put a band aid on it. In return we sit and play with ourselves and don’t cause trouble because the threat of parental rebuke and the naughty step is ever present.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

And the corollary is that the state supplies the parental control, of course under the banner of ‘for your own good’. This is progressive, has there every been a regressive state? Skidelsky puts a slightly different gloss on Beveridge who justified his reforms with cost saving and social registration.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Unfortunately, it appears most of us don’t think the state is God. (Why did I say “unfortunately”?!) Even our political “masters”.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Rubbish.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

The last paragraph says it all. The idea of a culture of intellectuals is to stop physically strong people from ruling the roost. Without the pretence of culture, the weak would be annihilated by the physically strong – here strong could mean simply the owner of the best weapons.

I dare not go to the city centre with my family on Friday and Saturday nights – this means that I believe our present culture is failing.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

You’re talking about laws. There are still laws.

Lillian Fry
Lillian Fry
2 years ago

Carl Trueman’s THE RISE AND TRIUMPH OF THE MODERN SELF is an attempt to make Rieff’s work more accessible. A great read too. This writer here touches on the attempt to recreate a sacred order and I believe we have it in the speech and other prohibitions against any criticism of the new sacred cows- of race for sure but more powerfully of the sexual anomalies. It won’t be long before the punishments for opposing same sex marriage will resemble those of the Taliban.

Lillian Fry
Lillian Fry
2 years ago
Reply to  Lillian Fry
Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Lillian Fry

I agree; I am finding this book fascinating but also mentally challenging!

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Lillian Fry

Rubbish!!

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
2 years ago

Rieff predicted that the logical endpoint of therapeutic culture was an orgy of violence — “Immediately behind the hippies stand the thugs,” as he wrote in Fellow Teachers. Such an orgy is still nowhere on the horizon.

If I see the pictures of police in Australia and Berlin, I do see thugs. We are there.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

A better analogy is the Antifa movement in the US. The police ultimately use violence, as in all societies, to enforce whatever laws there have been passed, whether we think they are justified or not.

Helen Moorhouse
Helen Moorhouse
2 years ago

Larry Siedentopf, Tom Holland and indeed Jordan Peterson have all recently discussed the gulf left when Christianity ceases to guide us into civilization.
We may not have seen violence erupting in this country but the way lockdown/vaccine protests have been suppressed feels less than courteous. And anyone living in Portland, Oregon last summer might think chaos is here for good.

Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago

This was quite a read. Rieff certainly goes in my “to read” list, and makes me mighty pleased once again to be an Unherd reader.
There’s something to be said for woke culture seeking morality, but I believe the main blow from wokeism is on Enlightenment. With Enlightenment gone, we get back traditional religion (think the demise of the New Atheists) but also the witches and the lunatics.
The main problem with wokeism as I see it, is its inherent instability, I can’t fathom how a healthy functioning society can be built on a woke foundation. I fear it’ll eventually degenerate into some kind of Orwellian nightmare.

Last edited 2 years ago by Emre Emre
John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

I agree wholly: Wokeism is merely one aspect of what is obviously an attempt to reintroduce the oppressive tyranny of old-style religions. The Orwellian nightmare to which you refer, however, would not be evidence of failure in this plan, but evidence of its success.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

“wokeism” seems to be the opposite of old style religions. They were “god fearing”.

Tom Pettigrew
Tom Pettigrew
2 years ago

“Immediately behind the hippies stand the thugs,”…Antifa.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Such an interesting essay, thank you Park MacDougald.

Neven Curlin
Neven Curlin
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Echoed. I always enjoy completely unorthodox perspectives that I didn’t know of. Will have to read this again.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Neven Curlin

Yes, that’s what I like about Unherd they’re writers are original.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago

“No” comes before “yes,” and “no” is the ultimate origin of culture.
Yes… if a few more people applied “No” we might a all be in a better place. But it is often a highly intellectual exercise to say “No” ,that`s the problem, even more so in our digital age !
It seems more and more difficult to say “No” in Western culture.
And so we get group think, mass hysteria on things like the climate… and nasties like cancelling, as the those who would seek Power explore the “Yes” as a way of gaining more control.

D Hockley
D Hockley
2 years ago

Wow, what a fantastic piece of writing. This has been cut and pasted to a word document and stored in a special folder in my computer. It is very rare to read such insightful brilliance.

Richard Kuslan
Richard Kuslan
2 years ago

The god of the post-modern west is man. His religion is self-worship. Fantastic narcissism is his dogma. Idolators are those who deny him pre-eminence in his own mind. Youth must be preserved at all costs, death denied. A fatal prison in a stunted consciousness.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago

The task of “culture” is to “transliterate otherwise invisible sacred orders into their visible modalities — social orders”. This “transliteration” occurs by rendering the moral commandments given in advance by a culture’s highest authority … into terms that people can understand and internalise, so as to regulate their behaviour in line with their culture’s conception of good and evil. 
Such is the central thesis of Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning.
I think his upcoming sojourn to Cambridge and Oxford is going to deal with a similar subject matter reality to the values and ethics and their hierarchies and where those values and ethics originated and why etc.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

His latest podcast (today) was interesting on the subject

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
2 years ago

Interesting article. One angle in this article is one of the main issue with medicine and health in general (psychological health is a very important part of general health); this issue is that we tend to approach all medical matters from the point of view: what has gone wrong, what caused this illness or problem?
If we were to start examining the issues of health from the point of view of asking the question ‘what makes us healthy’, then the whole of this article would have a different narrative and overall, medicine would improve vastly. By researching what makes health, the questions we ask will be very different from current mainstream research and the answers will also be very different. …. sadly this does not serve the industry of medicine…

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago

Your instinct strikes me as entirely correct. Most doctors (perhaps not in future since medical faculties are fast becoming gangrened with wokeness) understand that diseases are often self-limiting – the body can heal itself. The same principle of natural recovery and resilience should apply to conditions of the mind. However, rather than seek mental fortitude, our society encourages us to seek mental pathologies. People are no longer just ‘sad’, they are ‘depressed’. No one has a ‘bad day’, they endure a ‘trauma’. No one has a ‘bad childhood’, they are ‘victims’ of ‘bullying’ or ‘abuse’. It’s always the same language of hyperbole and pathologies. How can we be mentally healthy with this worldview? This is a big problem, I think.

Last edited 2 years ago by JP Martin
John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“But without these commands to bind us together into a “saving larger self”, we are subject to persistent existential unease — a small, nagging sense that there should be something more to life, some higher meaning, than earning money and consuming sensory experiences.”

Yes, but this could be read from the opposite perspective, which is that human society has never had mass prosperity until the last 100 years, and we’re still in the middle of working out how to cope with the sudden freedom from widespread material want that this represents. Or in other words, it’s a problem, yes, but very much a good problem to have. And this has to be read in the context of the fact that when I refer to “human society”, I refer to the 100,000 year history of human existence, against which the past 100 years of mass prosperity stand in stark contrast: a tiny sliver of time in which most humans did not risk starvation, oppression and frequent casual or organised violence on a daily basis.

David Deutsch touches on this in his book The Beginning of Infinity (it doesn’t form part of contemporary thinkers’ reference works because it commits the intellectual crime of being optimistic), in which he describes the way most societies that have ever existed as being “static”, in the sense that the vast majority of humans possessed no control over their circumstances or destiny, and lived in a culture crafted in ways that entrenched this harsh reality . He ably argues that one thing we have forgotten very rapidly in the modern West (very definitely NOT static in this sense) is how unutterably horrible such an existence is. My point here is to say that even if Rieff’s analysis is correct, it may come to be seen in time as merely a teething trouble aspect of humanity’s escape into a larger, better existence.

“Rieff’s is a strange sort of counsel. As both Christopher Lasch and George Scialabba have noted in essays about his work, he is an atheistic defender of the social and existential necessity of religion;”

Oddly enough I’ve been saying something related to this for some time too: although an atheist now, I do not reject the core teachings of Christian morals, believing that they possess equal value once separated from the mythology associated with Christianity as they do if taken as a whole with it. This of course could be me simply reverting to habits learned as a child in a religious family of course: I do not claim to be a philosopher here. But to return to the point above, it is possible that in previous generations when life was far harder, the mythology was actually necessary to provide the incentive to adopt the moral precepts: in this sense the rules that suppressed the temptations to take from others by force or fraud, or to impose libidinous impulses without consent etc – these could not succeed if only based upon the principle of love for one’s fellow man and woman in a society where food is scarce, work is backbreaking and danger is ever present: there had to be an eternity myth in which there are rewards for lives lived well, and the opposite for lives lived badly.

So if a consequence of modern life’s freedom from want is that we have broadly kept the basic morals previously enforced by religion (and we HAVE done this, see the stats on violence, theft, property rights etc which are still on a downward trajectory over decades), but without the carrot and stick of heaven and hell, we’re still concluding that Rieff’s thesis describes a good problem to have, aren’t we?

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

I suppose another way of putting this is that, “nature abhors a vacuum,” or from the Bible, Matthew 12 38-39, in which a man expels one demon from his house, but finds he has taken on seven new demons.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

That’ll teach him!

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Surely the successor to religion in the west at least is environmentalism?

Justin French-Brooks
Justin French-Brooks
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

If it is (and I agree that it may be for some), then it hasn’t spread to such a degree as to prevent the widespread environmental degradation of the west. The UK, for example, is recorded as being among the most degraded land areas on earth.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

Really? I’m gonna have to check that out.

Andrew Roman
Andrew Roman
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Yes, the cult of the green, and saving the planet from the end of the world.

colledge.david
colledge.david
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Roman

Did you mean to refer to the Last Judgement, by any chance?

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Is that so bad? Is not nature the mother and nurturer of us all?

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Exactly.

MICHAEL DEMAREE
MICHAEL DEMAREE
2 years ago

Hello.
Having read the article and the comments I find myself in a somewhat different group of thoughts than others commenting. My thoughts tend toward the pragmatic as being most relative… what works.
I am an individual human being. By myself I am absolutely at liberty to take any action I choose as suggested by my circumstances. By myself I have no culture. It is in interaction with others I create a culture which works best for me. If I produce nothing, I have nothing. If I do produce I may have food, clothing, shelter. If I attack others and take what they produce I create a culture in which attack is both imminent and expected. Whether I take from others by force or by force authorized by the ballot box I still create a culture of attack, of force and coercion. The culture which works best for me is one in which attack, force, and coercion are outlawed, and where those refusing to abide by that law are separated from that culture. The creation of and voluntary participation in such a culture by myself or by others limits our free choices, but on balance it works… it is worth it.
I am an individual human being. By myself I have no morality or ethic. I recognize the reality and magnificence of my free existence. I can choose any action which works. I treasure my free existence. “Free existence” is to be treasured as the natural state of a human being. In contact with others I note that they also have a free existence. I may wonder what governs how we interact. It makes sense that if I treasure individual existence, and others treasure individual existence, a reasonable code of behavior, self-serving for all individuals, might be to treasure each individual one encounters, whether encountered through one’s senses or one’s thoughts. A pragmatic, self-serving morality.
One’s healthy existence is recognizing that, pragmatically, any action which denigrates any other individual denigrates me, and any action which denigrates me denigrates all other individuals.
I am pragmatic and self-serving in adopting and promoting this new morality: Treasure each individual you encounter, whether encountered through your senses or your thoughts; in so doing you will learn to treasure yourself; in so doing you will learn to treasure and delight in existence.
Pragmatism is its own justification.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

The Golden Rule, I think – as in do unto others as . . .

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Exactly.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

A very interesting perspective

Firat M H
Firat M H
2 years ago

Rieff is an interesting figure, who seems to belong to a certain strand of German “conservative” thinkers of the fin-de-siecle period. I was wondering about his relationship to Nietzsche.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

“Such an orgy is still nowhere on the horizon.” really? Isn’t that what last summer in the US was about, or January 6, or extinction rebellion? Not many dead, so far, but a great deal of orgiastic protest. Maybe 9/11 was merely a harbinger – I am unhappy, so I’m going to break things

Laura Pritchard
Laura Pritchard
2 years ago

Am I wrong when I perceive a thread within this type of discourse that suggests humans need to be saved from themselves? Is it true?

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

Yes, to the extent that we need to believe in something bigger than ourselves

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago
Reply to  David Simpson

You may need to, however if you know something for a fact you don’t need to believe.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

“Elite cultural output — both the modernist high art that Rieff analysed and the pop culture of our own day — had become a series of “deconversion therapies” attempting to train the lower classes out of their supposedly primitive superstitions, 
”

In 1950s America, the new craze of rock’n’roll was denounced, I understand, by the conservative and concerned, by several religious denominations, as evil. Or perhaps in some quarters it was denounced so. For it being a form of deconversion therapy?
What modernist high art was Rieff analysing that had been rubbing shoulders with the traditional lower classes?

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Moreover, what is Bart Simpson doing stuffed into, from the photo above, the breast pocket of the man on the far right?

colledge.david
colledge.david
2 years ago

Good question.

Brooke Walford
Brooke Walford
2 years ago

Culture can never be squeezed into a cute aphorism. But I’ll offer one anyway! Cultures grow when they are fed. The chief nutrient for healthy growth is topological complexity.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Brooke Walford

Please elaborate!

A S
A S
2 years ago

What an interesting essay – I especially get the core of what you are getting to as someone raised atheist (but by a very thoughtful parent ahead of their times in discussing some of these ideas). Some of the critical comments remind me a bit of an old mad magazine bit on why you will miss seeing Halley’s comet and one reason was that you will spend the entire time arguing with some smart aleck about whether it should be pronounced “Hay-lee” or “Hah-lee”.
Makes me really want to find out more about Reiff (who I have never heard of before now) but I suppose I need to develop a taste for ball bearings ..

Last edited 2 years ago by A S
Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
2 years ago

“Q believers posit an elite cabal guilty of one of the few crimes, paedophilia, for which the old interdicts retain their full force.”
I only wish that were true!
The “woke” have come out against the FOSTA/SESTA law and the EARNIT act, both of which hold web sites accountable for allowing traffickers to sell raped kids and display child porn on their sites.
They claim that this would “hurt” adult “sex workers” who use those sites to advertise for customers.
In what universe is it okay to prioritize the safety of adults who (allegedly) choose to be sex workers over the safety of abused children?
In the therapeutic world we are all children, and actual children with a legitimate need to be protected are treated as unreasonable little tyrants demanding that the grownups behave themselves.
The woke are so concerned about protecting the feelings of pedophiles that they now call them “minor attracted persons.” God forbid that pedophiles have self-esteem issues just because they’re tempted to rape little kids.
There is also talk among the “woke” to eliminate the sex offender registry because it is sometimes used to stigmatize 18 year olds who’ve been charged with having sex with 15 year olds (or the registry could simply state that this is the charge for which the person is now registered -instead of making it impossible for a single mom to discover that the man she’s just introduced her children to has been convicted of child rape).
Therapeutic culture prioritizes the protection of adults over the protection of children, which may be the kernel of truth that allowed so many people to believe the Q Anon conspiracy.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago

God is not dead, then. Good.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

Yes it is.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
10 months ago

Yes it is.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago

God is not dead, then. Good.