Saturday, May 26, 2012

Maslow and the Sixties: Feverish and unquenchable desire

We're discussing Brink Lindsey's book The Age of Abundance. I was talking about the psychologist Abraham Maslow on the blog recently. I wondered why we did not pay more attention to the potential implications of what he said for the economy, and how it is changing.

Well, Lindsey makes an convincing case that there was overwhelming attention to what Maslow said in the sixties, at least in cultural and political terms. America spent a decade trying out new forms of personal fulfilment and self-realization. Maslow had written his original article in the 1940s, and when the economy boomed it suddenly seemed very relevant.

Maslow was attempting to explain individual psychology, not social development, but his insights went to the very heart of the great changes in American life unleashed by widespread prosperity. Freed from physical want and material insecurity, Americans in their millions began climbing Maslow’s pyramid. They threw over the traditional Protestant ethos of self-denial and hurled themselves instead into an utterly unprecedented mass pursuit of personal fulfillment, reinventing and reinvigorating the perennial quests for belonging and status along the way. The realm of freedom, once imagined as a tranquil, happily-ever-after utopia, turned out to be a free-for-all of feverish and unquenchable desire.

Indeed, some of the best known radicals and reformers in the sixties were directly influenced by the hierarchy of needs. Betty Friedan is an example.

... Friedan made her case in explicitly Maslovian terms. “Despite the glorification of ‘Occupation: housewife,’” she wrote, “if that occupation does not demand, or permit, realization of woman’s full abilities, it cannot provide adequate self-esteem, much less pave the way to a higher level of self-realization.”

But some went far beyond Maslow. Herbert Marcuse took the arguments to a more radical level. And here is where things started getting potentially nihilistic.

“Scarcity,” [Marcuse] wrote, “teaches men that they cannot freely gratify their instinctual impulses, that they cannot live under the pleasure principle.” It therefore followed, Marcuse argued, that the elimination of scarcity made possible the overthrow of repression.

Echoing Marx, Marcuse predicted that “[u]nder the ‘ideal’ conditions of mature industrial civilization, alienation would be completed by general automation of labor, reduction of labor time to a minimum, and exchangeability of functions.” As a result, “the quantum of instinctual energy still to be diverted into necessary labor…would be so small that a large area of repressive constraints and modifications, no longer sustained by external forces, would collapse.” Capitalism’s elaborate, soul-deadening disciplines could then be left behind, and civilization would advance into enlightened neoprimitivism. In Marcuse’s conception, the realm of freedom was to be a playground of uninhibited instinct.

Maslow himself did not go so far. But as I discussed earlier, he did assume a sunny, optimistic view of human nature, and believed little restraint was necessary. As Lindsey says.

Maslow, for his part, did not share Marcuse’s radical antipathy to American consumer capitalism. But his emphasis on self-realization—and, in particular, his belief that the instinctual impulses that lead people up the hierarchy of needs are fundamentally healthy—made him, along with Marcuse, a hero of the gathering romantic rebellion.

And so some of the most extreme of the sixties radicals actually saw Maslow as a hero. Indeed Abbie Hoffman studied under him at Brandeis.

“Most of all, I loved Professor Abe Maslow,” he wrote later. “I took every class he gave and spent long evenings with him and his family.” His exposure to Marcuse, however, led him to see Maslow’s message as incomplete. “Maslow, a true pioneer, was far from a social radical…,” he observed. “Still I’ve found everything Maslow wrote applicable to modern revolutionary struggle in America, especially when corrected by Marcuse’s class analysis.” After college, Abbie Hoffman would apply his own personal touch to the lessons of his two mentors, but he never forgot his intellectual debt. “It doesn’t take a great deal of insight,” acknowledged the clown prince of the student revolt, “to see the entire sixties (myself included) as the synthesis of these two teachers.”


The release of the Id


So Maslow's insights were joined with a neo-Marxist analysis and a careless assumption that removing restraints would produce a new utopian paradise. Self-realization turned into self-indulgence. Lindsey notes historian Todd Gitlin's analysis :

The new wrinkle,” Todd Gitlin commented in retrospect, “was to assert that the very act of engorging the self, unplugging from all the sacrificial social networks, would transform society. An audacious notion, that id could be made to do the work of superego!”

And here is a great historical irony: the notion of the hierarchy of needs did not have to be a release of the leftist id, a romantic Aquarian explosion. But that was its primary expression, at least in the sixties and seventies.

However, it was not the only expression or consequence or possibility. Even the evangelical counter-reaction expressed itself in Maslowian terms:

Most important, evangelicalism moved decisively to align Christian faith with the central preoccupation of the affluent society: the new Holy Grail, self-realization. Unlike the classic bourgeois Protestantism of the nineteenth century, whose moral teachings emphasized self-restraint and avoidance of worldly temptation, the revitalized version of the old-time religion promised empowerment, joy, and personal fulfillment. A godly life was once understood as grim defiance of sinful urges; now, it was the key to untold blessings. “Something good is going to happen to you!” Oral Roberts proclaimed.


And so American society shifted as a whole, at least for a few years, to thinking in terms of personal fulfilment. Lindsey concludes:

.. millions began to think about the choices they faced in explicitly Maslovian terms. Where once they pursued various proxies for personal fulfillment (money, success, family), now they wanted the real thing. And when they saw conflicts between chasing the proxies and chasing the real thing, they were increasingly inclined to opt for the latter. The traditional American quest for self-improvement now became a spiritual quest—a quest to discover the “real me” and dutifully serve its needs. Urged on by group therapy sessions, 12-step recovery programs, support groups, and an endless parade of self-appointed self-help experts, a nation of Jonathan Livingston Seagulls took wing.

Economic crisis and malaise in the 1970s drove some of that feeling underground. And the 1980s went back to a more capitalist ethos of yuppies and Gordon Gecko. And certainly now the culture is more preoccupied with making it through the hard times rather than dreaming of possibilities.

But capitalism itself absorbed much of the "bobo" cultural message. Gone was the "organization man" ideal of the 1950s, replaced by the tech hippie cool of Steve Jobs and Apple in the 2000s. Bourgeois bohemians, in David Brooks' phrase, came to dominate much of the professions and business. And, as we'll see, all kinds of new groups flourished and possibilities opened up.

There's a larger point here, before we go on to look at other aspects of the book. I've often argued on this blog that we need to talk more about ends as a society, and not just means. This explanation of the sixties just reinforces the point. Liberals did not believe they had to think hard about what kind of society they wanted to see. All that mattered was to remove restraints, and all would work out to the good.

That didn't work. And it also opened the door to more radical new leftists who did have a vision of particular ends - a negative overthrow of most of the current social structure.

So the first efforts at understanding the possibilities of abundance did not work out well. But first tries are not the last word. The social erosion of the sixties is not the only outcome.

We have another chance now, to do it right this time. In fact, the economy is evolving in a way that leaves us little choice but to confront the need to adapt our institutions and values to cope with affluence and abundance.

Abundance can erode many of the social institutions that support human flourishing, and undermine abundance itself. Institutions do not automatically keep up with changes in the underlying economy. And that can lead to turmoil and breakdown.



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