Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

January 6th and the Therapeutic State

By Jeff Polet, Director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

Back in my school days when I was a philosophy major I would usually get the question “what could you possibly do with that degree?” I regarded the question as largely irrelevant, and still do, but it does point to a popular perception that philosophers are in some ways disengaged from the world; by thinking about “higher” realities we lack the ability to flourish in the one we all share. Like all stereotypes, there’s some truth to it.

Matthew Crawford is, for my money, one of the sharpest and most interesting social commentators working in America today. Much of his work has been dedicated to bridging the gap between our mental lives and the physical world around us. His first book, Shopcraft as Soulcraft, encouraged engagement with the physical world and also stressed the importance of “manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world.” Our college campuses have become central agents in downplaying the importance of manual labor and trades, and those with college degrees often look down their noses at “mere laborers.” But Crawford insists that these trades suggest something more fundamental about us than does mere intellectual work.

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.

Crawford’s analysis is more needed today than it was when he wrote the book.

His next book, The World Beyond Your Head, dealt with the way we pay attention to things in the world around us, and how such attention becomes instrumental in shaping us into particular kinds of human beings. Not simply a screed against current technologies, the book brings into question fundamental assumptions we make about what kinds of creatures we are. It too is a necessary tonic for living in a world where we are (in Eliot’s phrase) “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

I haven’t yet read his Why We Drive, but I eagerly look forward to doing so. All this by way of introduction and establishing his bona fides. A writer may be a lot of things, but the one thing a writer is never allowed to be is boring,. And Crawford is never boring.

Even though our policy on this website is not to fight the culture wars, we are interested in illuminating them, particularly if the heated skirmishes keep us from thinking clearly about what’s going on. As an undergraduate I had read some Freud and, while mystified by it in some ways, I also found it an exciting glimpse into our cultural predicament, particularly his observation that civilization itself results from repressed desire. One of my professors had also assigned Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, a bracing though turgid piece of cultural criticism that argued that our disconnection from each other mirrored a much larger pattern of disconnect. Cut off from cultural and historical structures of meaning and belonging, contemporary Americans had become filled with repressed rage, feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, and ultimately self-hatred. They in turn sublimated those feelings into grandiose delusions about themselves and use other people as fuel to feed and uphold those delusions. Already in 1979, Lasch had identified the impulse to self-delusion and the demand that other people uphold those delusions as the central feature of the so-called “me decade.”

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school and read Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud that I finally began to understand our central problem: that the therapies available to adjust us to life in our current age — therapies for the widespread anxiety, loneliness, depression, and confusion that mark our time – come from the same source as the causes of those pathologies themselves, and thus the therapies will always fail at their essential task: creating a deep sense of meaning and belonging. According to Rieff, culture is always organized around the complementary and complex forces of control and release, and the controls are part of a whole cultural interdiction that makes apparent to people why they should control their impulses and desires. Once the culture is “deconstructed” and the controls are weakened, we are left with a world where we are either encouraged to the constant release of our impulses and desires (“the heart wants what the heart wants”) or we find the controls to be essentially meaningless and thus oppressive.

Cultural controls, Rieff argued, not only give people reasons to accept limits on their desires, but also compensates us psychically for sacrificing those impulses toward some sort of higher good. We turn our repressed desires into cultural products that draw our attention to a reality beyond culture itself, toward the divine. Culture, in art and other ways, “gives back bettered” those impulses it denies us. Thus, according to Rieff, because of the destruction of a shared culture and the retreat from tradition and religious communities, the quest for individual fulfillment and personal freedom will always come up empty because it can never aspire toward anything more than self-justification. One cannot build a culture purely on permissive ideas of “release,” and the effort will almost certainly result in controls even more tyrannical than the ones that were thrown off, in no small part because the exercise of power will have all its checks removed.

Crawford writes very much in the spirit of these thinkers and applies their insights to our contemporary context where the destructive dialectic of release and its concomitant sense of meaninglessness has culminated in catastrophically high levels of anxiety, alienation, and depression, not to mention deep social division. The destruction of culture that was advocated for and celebrated by 18th and 19th century philosophers has not ushered in the utopia they dreamed of or its replacement by a healthier culture. What we have instead is an anti-culture, and whatever is true of our current culture wars they can’t be understood without the realization that the fundamental battle is not internecine but between defenders of culture and the shock troops of an anti-culture.

Perhaps nowhere are the consequences of this division more clearly demonstrated than in the debates that center around what a human being is, and whether a person’s self-conception admits of control and limitation (either cultural or by nature itself). Crawford shrewdly observes the process becomes further corrupted when spontaneously created sets of controls that emerge from free actors within a defined practice (think about children creating games and the rules that govern them and the punishments for breaking those rules)1 get replaced by the “authority” of experts. Not only is this an anti-democratic impulse, but it allows the so-called experts to exercise control via the imposition of rules and regulations that typically satisfy their interests and ideological demands. Feeling that their interests are not only not being attended to but not even considered, the game players will experience feelings of powerlessness and resentment, and those feelings, precisely because the whole idea of constraint has already been tossed aside, will manifest themselves in anger and violence.

Freud understood that in an age dominated by a therapy-based regime, with its emphasis on repression and release, rather than a faith-based one, with its emphasis on confession and forgiveness, the primary task of authority would be one of adjustment, and this meant not only an imposition of rules, but the control of manners, tastes, habits, recreational opportunities, and human relationships themselves. Social authority would operate to adjust individual proclivities to the demands and tastes of those upon whom authority had been conferred – the authority of the therapeutic experts themselves. The political world would become divided between those who are fully adjusted and those who, retaining some sense of spontaneity and self, are either partially or fully unadjusted. The unadjusted person would constantly look for little hideaways and escape routes in the overadjusted world. If those routes became closed off to them, they would seek to destroy the overadjusted world.

Crawford explains the dynamic this way:

The intimate and the spontaneous became subject to therapeutic mediation in the service of various social goods. … Life under these conditions feels a bit off — like the opposite of vitality. One’s own powers of making sense of the world are somehow disqualified. These are powers that develop naturally through action in the world. As the legitimacy and confidence of common sense is eroded, the field of meaningful action that is open to an individual seems also to shrink. Action is reduced to making choices from a menu of presented options, as in shopping, as opposed to a generative activity by which some mental conception of one’s own is brought forward into the shared world. The shared world is already saturated. It is fully known and mastered; your task is merely to get yourself properly aligned to it.

The dynamic is intensified by the “meritocratic” myth: the idea that an advanced education and specialized knowledge confers on you certain powers that entitles you to dictate the terms of the game. College education becomes an extensive and expensive initiation ceremony that acts as a gateway for admission into the ruling class, and the rites of initiation are internalized in the idea of expertise; or, in other words, of just knowing better, and mainly knowing what’s better for another person than that person can know for him or herself. Their status allows them to dictate right and wrong. Thus, Crawford argues, the therapeutic and the moral merge themselves into an exercise of social control.

Daily life is shot through with an ambient pedagogical project that works to create the modern subject, a creature who internalises the social discipline required by the modern state. In one of his choicest formulations, Michel Foucault referred to “the minor civil servants of moral orthopaedics”. They are found in corporate HR, the Office of Student Life in universities, mandatory “Relationships and Sexual Health Education” in schools, lifestyle magazines and countless other sites of adjustment. 

Crawford goes into a great deal of detail about what this all portends for how we understand the sexes and how we encode their traits, and in particular what it means for the organization and operations of contemporary institutions. We need not rehearse his argument here, for the important matter is that the modern therapeutic state seeks to keep us from full emergence into adulthood, in no small part by constant reminders of both our helplessness and our victimization at the hands of others (the experience of which Hobbes postulated as the foundation for the modern state). Ahead of his time, as usual, Tocqueville observed:

The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. … Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood.

My own experience in the academy confirms the judgment that once institutions understand themselves according to a therapeutic model, their constant impulse will be to infantilize the persons who inhabit it, and anyone who calls this infantilization into question will be considered “unadjusted” and in need of moral orthopaedics. Thus our colleges are beholden to a cottage industry of orthopaedic specialists who enrich themselves by correcting (training seminars) imagined problems. Thus the therapeutic regime perpetuates itself by causing the problems only it can solve.

It’s no wonder, then, that we have witnessed the emergence of Bronze Age Pervert and QAnon and The Lost Boys and associated groups who, unadjusted and under constant pressure of therapeutic adjustment, turned their repressed impulses into rage and spilled that rage into our nation’s capital. Unless we understand the underlying dynamic, we can be assured that January 6th will be repeated, and if we want to avoid a repeat, the problem will have to be addressed with something other than the therapeutic regime we have in place. Because they have no interest in dismantling the regime from which they benefit, the people who run it will continue the cycle of name-calling and intervention that led to the rage in the first place, thus perpetuating the cycle of psychic pressure and its eruption into violence. Finding an alternative approach is the great political challenge of our age, but it will emerge only from dissident ways of thinking. Thus we must distinguish dissident ways of thinking that are generated by the therapeutic state from those that offer an alternative to it.

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1Childhood should be a realm of free and spontaneous invention, especially with regards to games and the rules that govern them. The replacement of unsupervised game playing and creation with organized activities, always under the watchful supervision and intervention of adults, is one of the most doleful and consequential developments of our age and will virtually assure the non-development of young persons into free citizens.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Think of examples of repressed desire and how that might manifest itself in artistic or other cultural achievement.
  2. What might operate as civilizational controls, and what evidence might we have that they’ve been effaced?
  3. If civilization is about control and release of impulses, and we have removed control, how does the therapeutic state seek to solve that problem?
  4. Are the events of January 6th likely to be repeated? How can they be prevented without causing an even more intense backlash? What role might physical engagement with the world and with others play in that?
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1 thought on “January 6th and the Therapeutic State”

  1. Heavy reading Jeff . But I enjoy your well thought out articles . Now if you could learn how to hook up a trailer 🙊

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