excerpt from ; "Jung’s Timeliness and Thoughts on Our Current Reality"
Sometimes, in reading Jung, I encounter a passage that makes me think Jung wrote it just yesterday. Recently, while preparing a presentation for the Jung Society for Scholarly Studies symposium at Cornell University, I came across the following quote from “Civilization in Transition:”
Thanks to industrialization, large portions of the population were uprooted and were herded together in large centers. This new form of existence—with its mass psychology and social dependence on the fluctuation of markets and wages—produced an individual who was unstable, insecure, and suggestible. He was aware that his life depended on boards of directors and captains of industry, and he supposed, rightly or wrongly, that they were chiefly motivated by financial interests. He knew that, no matter how conscientiously he worked, he could still fall a victim at any moment to economic changes which were utterly beyond his control. And there was nothing else for him to rely on....
Jung wrote these words for a BBC broadcast he gave in 1946, but, given our recent history, they seem as relevant in 2009 as they were 63 years ago. How prescient Jung was! He could see the fragility of the industrial system and how vulnerable it has left the vast majority of people in the modern world.
Ever the clinician concerned to relieve suffering in the world, Jung was not content simply to diagnose problems; he offered suggestions as to what we might do to improve our situation. Some of these suggestions include wising up to the dangerous features of our current reality, addressing the problem of “mass-mindedness,” and achieving a metanoia, or fundamental mind change.
Wising Up to the Dangerous Features of Our Current Reality
Jung summarized many of what he felt were dangerous features of Western civilization in the above passage. In the manner of the French explication de texte, let’s draw out Jung’s wisdom phrase by phrase.
“Large portions of the population were uprooted...”: Jung regarded the rootlessness of modern people as “one of the greatest psychic dangers... a disaster not only for primitive tribes but for civilized man as well.” Why a disaster? Jung felt rootlessness would lead to “... a hybris of the conscious mind which manifests itself in the form of exaggerated self-esteem or an inferiority complex. At all events a loss of balance ensues, and this is the most fruitful soil for psychic injury.”
“herded together in large centers.”: Jung refers here to big cities, the megalopolises of the modern world, and he felt such “herding” of people caused all sorts of social and mental pathologies, a tendency to “thinking in large numbers” and the rise of “mass psychology”—all regrettable and dangerous features of modern life.
“...dependence on the fluctuation of markets and wages”: Jung recognized that we have become so dependent because of the “externalization of culture”—the result of the Extraverted bias of Western culture (most especially in America). Our “materialistic technology and commercial acquisitiveness” has led to “a loss of spiritual culture.” Jung was quite explicit about the dangers in such dependence on externals:
The man whose interests are all outside is never satisfied with what is necessary, but is perpetually hankering after something more and better which, true to his bias, he always seeks outside himself. He forgets completely that, for all his outward successes, he himself remains the same inwardly, and he therefore laments his poverty if he possesses only one automobile when the majority have two. Obviously the outward lives of men could do with a lot more bettering and beautifying, but these things lose their meaning when the inner man does not keep pace with them. To be satisfied with “necessities” is no doubt an inestimable source of happiness, yet the inner man continues to raise his claim, and this can be satisfied by no outward possession. And the less this voice is heard in the chase after the brilliant things of this world, the more the inner man becomes the source of inexplicable misfortune and uncomprehended unhappiness in the midst of living conditions whose outcome was expected to be entirely different. The externalization of life turns to incurable suffering, because no one can understand why he should suffer from himself. No one wonders at his insatiability, but regards it as his lawful right, never thinking that the one-sidedness of this psychic diet leads in the end to the gravest disturbances of equilibrium. That is the sickness of Western man, and he will not rest until he has infected the whole world with his own greedy restlessness.
The economic meltdown of 2008 brought home the truth of Jung’s insight: the “captains of industry” (most of them in the United States), “chiefly motivated by financial interests” did indeed “infect” the entire planet with their greedy materialism.
One concomitant of such materialism is “... the spiritual confusion of our modern world.” Another has been “the hollowing out of money, which in the near future will make all savings illusory...”. A third is the emptiness of Western materialistic values, which has led to the degeneration of the individual personality. Jung speaks to this in his reference to
“... an individual who was unstable, insecure and suggestible.”: Our Western over-valuation of logic, reason and science is both a result of and a further cause for our lack of self-knowledge and valuation of the inner man. We put great store on being “with it,” following fads and fashions with increasing susceptibility to the omnipresent influence of the media. Lacking inner anchors, we become more and more suggestible, especially as our cities get larger and larger: “The majority of normal people (quite apart from the 10 per cent or so who are inferior) are ridiculously unconscious and naive and are open to any passing suggestion.... The more people live together in heaps, the stupider and more suggestible the individual becomes.”
“...he could still fall victim at any moment to economic changes which were utterly beyond his control.”: Jung noted elsewhere “the longing for security in an age of insecurity.” Being “cogs in the wheel” of the industrialized world model, we feel disempowered, which is the essence of the “victim” archetype.
“And there was nothing else for him to rely on.”: In our world “full of trouble and disorientation,” “confusion and disintegration,” “uneasiness and fear,” we are without firm defenses. Jung felt this was in part due to “current trends in education that foster mass thinking and a collective orientation.” This was one of Jung’s major bugaboos, another key feature of our time and a theme Jung stressed over and over as a major danger we had to recognize and address.
Addressing the Problem of “Mass-Mindedness”
Jung felt crowds let loose “the dynamisms of the collective man... beasts or demons that lie dormant in every person until he is part of a mob.” Large groups blot out individual morality and cause individuals’ consciousness to sink to a lower level. Crowds stir up fears, which can lead to a whole population having “...a feeling of catastrophe in the air.” Crowds and groups induce “infantile behavior” in people who would otherwise behave in mature and responsible ways. Crowds cause “even the best man to lose his value and meaning,” and lead individuals to become “stultified” and their personalities to “degenerate.” Lacking any self-reflection, large groups of people make individuals “psychically abnormal.” Moved by impersonal, overwhelming forces, mobs produce “herd psychology” and the “mass man.”
Jung repeatedly decried the rise of “mass man.” Such a person is infantile in his behavior, “unreasonable, irresponsible, emotional, erratic and unreliable.” In the mass, the individual looses his value and becomes the victims of “-isms.” Claiming no sense of responsibility for his actions, mass man finds it easy to commit appalling crimes without thinking, and grows increasingly dependent on the state.
Jung felt that the larger the size of the group, the greater the dangers, because the lower the overall level of consciousness. The individual thrust into a large crowd would be hard put indeed to resist the pull into unconsciousness and would soon manifest “psychic abnormality.” Jung saw all this play out in the atrocities of World Wars I and II. He would not be surprised by similar events in the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and in the current “war” on terrorism.
Resisting mass-mindedness is not easy, but Jung provided us with some suggestions on how to do it. First, we must give up belief in “the sovereign remedy of mass action.” How tempting it is to focus on outer change, to reform what’s “out there”, to seek mass change! Jung would have none of that. He urges us not to depend on groups or large organizations, and most especially, not to look to the state or nation for our deliverance, since this only fosters more mass-mindedness. Rather we must resist trying any collective measures.
Second, he suggests we work to break up large organizations that “eat away at the individual’s nature.” How to do this? Jung is not specific but a simple personal response would be to refuse to join forces with such organizations: take work in small companies, join local groups (which may be affiliated with national or international groups), be self-employed. Support local businesses (most of which are smaller in size that the “big box” retailers and chains). Participate in organizations that understand the value of smallness, like the Jungian Center. We recognize the truth of Jung’s words here and put a premium on smallness. “Small is beautiful” is one of the Center’s stated values.
Most important in resisting mass-mindedness is the re-valuation of the individual. Jung urges us to emphasize and increase the value of the individual person. The individual life is the essential thing, Jung tells us. The salvation of the world lies in the salvation of the individual. We must recognize the whole man and begin with healing ourselves if we wish to heal the world.
To do this, of course, prompts a fourth suggestion Jung makes: work for a fundamental metanoia, or change of consciousness. What does Jung mean by this, and how might we go about achieving it?
Achieving a Metanoia