Conservatism and the Therapeutic Society
Conservatives active in the business of influencing public policy have been giving increasing attention in recent years to the idea that politics is ultimately an epiphenomenon of culture. What these activists have recognized is that political mobilization and efficiently produced position papers by themselves will not effect lasting change in the way we are governed. The force of a policy proposal will be strengthened in proportion to the extent that it is consonant with the larger representation of our communal aspirations—that representation being what we understand as “culture.” However, the crisis of the West in the modern age has involved the very dissolution of those binding and shared elements that define a culture.
Under the pressures of democratization, egalitarianism, and technological innovation, the religious and mythic roots of culture have been replaced by what is euphemistically called “pluralism.” The dispersion of cultural identity has long been the mission of liberalism, which cannot abide diversity, hierarchy, and moral restraints. A few conservatives still hold that the American tradition is not as thoroughly eroded as “New Class” urban intellectuals have claimed, but many conservatives now celebrate pluralism as an essential ingredient in a healthy, competitive democracy. In this sense, a large segment of conservatism has adopted J. S. Mill’s model of the “open society”: there are no public truths, only the struggle of ideas and interests. The irony here is that Mill’s liberalism is the antecedent to modern welfare-state liberalism, the supposed enemy of conservatism. It is an irony that many conservatives seem unable to recognize.
Without the common referents inherent in a cohesive culture, society is bound together, if at all, by superficial and evanescent “trends.” Lacking the centrality of the Word (in the form of scripture or sacred myth), we are left with the Image. But our images are not like icons or stained-glass: they refer to nothing beyond themselves. The highly visual society we inhabit, dominated as it is by television, film, videos, and both soft and hard pornography, is characterized by passive consumption and short attention spans. The result is a population of “other-directed” individuals, to use David Riesman’s terminology.
The danger attendant upon conservative attempts to influence the “cultural” ground of politics is that, far from revivifying culture, it is only a manipulation of images, a knocking together of short-term political alliances for a passing purpose. (Coalition-building is essential to politics, but not to culture; politicians can shift identity: principles cannot.) Thus some conservative policy journals have taken to interviewing conservative Hollywood actors, and publishing ghost-written essays by political superstars (often from the Left) in the game of winning friends and influencing people. No one has been bold enough to say it out loud, but the essential message in these images is: “Conservatism is sexy.” No doubt the conservative political cause has been advanced by these tactics. Unfortunately, the costs of these methods to the integrity of the conservative mission have yet to be gauged.
Recently, however, a prominent figure associated with one of the leading right-wing think tanks took his fellow conservatives to task for failing to perceive the underlying religious and cultural factors that have made it nearly impossible to dislodge the Marxist dream from the hearts of so many intellectuals and young people. For the purposes of convenience (personalities are not important here), I will call this writer Glaucon. The essence of Glaucon’s argument is this: conservatives have been unable to combat the appeal of Marxism because they have not seen that it is essentially a religion. Though communist states have become “desanctified” due to their manifest brutality and repression, other Marxist causes continue to inspire hope because Marxism speaks to an idealistic, religious longing. Marxism is especially pernicious because it promises an objective fulfillment of subjective desire, bringing chaos in its wake. Only when conservatives can speak to these longings by celebrating subjective, personal experience will they be able to detach others from the false religious incarnation of Marxism. Traditional Western religious symbols are bound up with objectivity and therefore must be abandoned. If alienated youth and intellectuals become interested in Oriental religions and the human potential movement, they will see through Marxism and become conservative. The only thing standing in the way of this development is the commitment of many conservatives to the obsolescent religious symbols of objectivity.
Despite its weaknesses and dangers. Glaucon’s argument has the merit of speaking to central issues, and deserves to be considered and, in my opinion, opposed, as something deeply inimical to the conservative mission.
The immediate problem with Glaucon’s reasoning stems from his lack of the concept of ideology. By calling Marxism a religion, he loses the ability to make necessary distinctions. Marxism does appeal to the alienated, but in precisely the opposite way to the higher religions. The religious sensibility requires faith, an openness to being. The order of being precedes man; man must therefore attune himself to the transcendent, which he experiences as placing him under moral obligations. The tension of faith, in which man struggles between the love of God and the love of self, is what ideology seeks to collapse. The ideologue sees the world as fundamentally evil, and believes that he bears within himself the truth (that is, a secularized divine will) which he must impose on the world. Marxism, as an ideology, arises out of an alienation from being. It is not a longing for the mysterious Giver of being, but a program for asserting power over being. Ideology does not relieve man of his alienation, but heightens estrangement and drives him toward revolutionary action.
The difference between ideology and religion is one that conservatives have labored to elaborate, and it is amazing that Glaucon seemingly has no access to this crucial work of analysis. But more pressing than this confusion is his dismissal of traditional Western symbols in favor of subjectivity. As Will Herberg, in his essay “What is the Moral Crisis of Our Time?” and other conservative theorists have noted, the subjective is not an unimportant aspect of our psychic make-up. Michael Polanyi and John Lukacs, for instance, have stressed the personal nature of our knowledge. But man is not limited to pure subjectivity: that is solipsism, and it leads inevitably to the anarchy that dissolves culture.
Glaucon’s celebration of personal feeling —he cites psychological counseling, which, he says, “encourages people to validate their relationships and values in relation to how they feel internally”—is an example of what sociologist Philip Rieff has termed “the triumph of the therapeutic.” Order becomes self-created; instead of adjusting himself toward an objective moral order of good and evil, he “validates” his feelings. The rise of the therapeutic mentality is co-extensive with the secularization of the West, according to Rieff. In characterizing the therapeutic society, he writes: “Where family and nation once stood, or Church and Party, there will be hospital and theater too, the normative institutions of the next culture. . . . Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.” Glaucon’s psychological imperative is not the Socratic “Know Thyself,” which involved an ordering of the self toward transcendent being, but “I’m OK, You’re OK.”
The ”human potential movement,” typified by such groups as the Esalen Institute, est, and Westernized brands of Eastern religion, is itself evidence of the fallout of modern man’s alienation, which in turn derives from the fragmentation of culture. “Every culture,” Rieff writes, “must establish itself as a system of moralizing demands, images that mark the trail of each man’s memory; thus to distinguish right actions from wrong the inner ordinances are set, by which men are guided in their conduct so as to assure a mutual security of contact.” For all the psychological soul-searching of movements like the Esalen Institute, the individuals in search of therapy are locked in their own personal voids: they are desperately looking for “security of contact.” As distinct from legitimate psychological counseling, the human potentialists are literally lost souls. Those who put their trust in the Esalen Institute are seeking the same escape from alienation that the intellectual or college radical seeks in the proletarian revolution.
It is difficult to see how the championing of subjectivity will lead to mass conversions to the conservative ranks. Tom Wolfe has made the “human potential movement” famous in his essay on the “Me Decade,” and there are many who rightly see this phenomenon in the words of psychologist Paul Vitz; “psychology as self-worship.” Asked to comment on the relationship between conservatism and the New Age movements, Christopher Hitchens, editor of the radical magazine The Nation, said: “I’ve always thought that people too readily think of New Age stuff as leftist… there’s no reason why this couldn’t appeal to selfish conservatives as well.” Whatever justifications Glaucon can make for the New Age, the association of selfish capitalists with selfish psychologism will do nothing but hurt conservatism.
But it isn’t necessary simply to abandon the traditional symbols of the West, however much they have been attacked and enervated. The purpose of the artist and the philosopher is to recall us to the experiences that engender the symbols of order, and we have not been lacking such prophets in this ravaged century. Who has done more to restore the meaning of the “soul” than Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who discovered that totalitarianism can strip man of everything but his irreducible spirit? The answer to Marxist ideologues and the disoriented seekers after “personal growth” is a reawakened sense of order and responsibility. True order does not lie in either the laws of history—or in whatever feels good.
As Will Herberg concludes in “What is the Moral Crisis of Our Time?”: “Real standards come in and through tradition.” Of course, truth has to be ascertained independently of tradition, but so long as we suffer from collective amnesia, so long as we act as if we can create order out of our heads, we will be condemned to be as the flower of the fields, which passes away. It is no coincidence that Glaucon emphasizes the need to communicate to youth: they are subjective because they have not undergone the process of enculturation. Indeed, the condition of radical subjectivity is a prolonging of adolescence. Richard Weaver, in Visions of Order, noted the relation between the “attack on memory” and the elevation of youth to an exalted position in society.
The virtues of youth are freshness and vitality, but these are not the virtues that fit one to be the custodian of the culture that society has produced. Deferring to youth is another way of weakening continuity. Mark almost any young person, and you notice that he does not see very much, in the sense of understanding what is present to his vision. He perceives, but he does not interpret, and this is because he is too lacking in those memory traces which lead to ideas and concepts. The memoryless part of mankind cannot be the teachers of culture. They are, however, ready learners of it if the real teachers show faith in the value of what they have.
The gravamen of Glaucon’s argument is that conservatives must reach out to new constituencies, particularly youth and the intellectuals. This is a challenge which conservatives have met, but which they must continue to take up. Instead of appealing to alienation by offering the anesthetic of subjectivism, we must restore our sensitivity toward moral order. The recovery of order requires hard work and humility. It is not a quick fix, and it will not create an instant political coalition to enact the conservative agenda (however important political action is in its own sphere). But it will restore health to our culture. The rest will follow from that.