There have been many versions and nuances of the idea that there may in fact be an intimate relationship between madness and civilization; that civilization itself is bound to growing existential challenges and an escalating inner chaos: Marx’s alienation; Durkheim’s anomie; Weber’s iron cage and disenchantment; Freud’s idea that civilization forces us to lock up sexual and aggressive urges, which leads us to lives of perpetual neurosis and discontent; Fromm’s idea that technological progress makes the sane society increasingly difficult to achieve, which results in an escape from freedom; Foucault’s idea that “madness” is itself an invention of the modern mind, the purpose of which is to sweep its own dark side under the rug (hence his 1964 book title Madness and Civilization); Habermas’ fragmentation of life and colonization of the lifeworld by the “system”; Deleuze and Guattari’s deterritorialization; Sennett’s corrosion of character—and many others.
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.
In recent years it has become abundantly clear that there is a rising problem of mental health issues among adolescents and young adults in the most advanced economies of the world—even as crime and alcohol use generally have decreased. We become civilized and we subtly go batshit crazy.
Of course, there are many aspects of this intimate connection between madness and civilization. I would suggest that the role of Existential Politics is to grapple this complex relationship, not only as a matter of “psychiatric care” and “mental health”, but as a fundamental issue involving all of us—so as to curb the lingering madness of everyday life itself. And what a daunting task that is.
We’re not looking only at the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, but at the entirety of a mostly subsumed mountain of ice. Our relatively innocent little neuroses, our innocuous inner grueling, our bitter silent comparisons with the fortunes of others—all of these realities are continuous not only with the prevalence of serious psychiatric illness and cases of social drudgery, but also with the games of everyday life and the workings of the economy and politics.
What is it that puts more and more of us, and increasingly often, face to face with madness? On a more general level of analysis, I would argue, it is not so much “civilization” or “modernity”, as the classics suggest, nor “the postmodern condition” or a variety thereof, as the analysts of today assert. Rather, it is the staggering increase of complexity itself. As society becomes so much more complex, so quickly, it simply becomes more difficult for the mind to reach a somewhat stable “local maximum” or “equilibrium”. It’s just more difficult to know who I am, what’s right and wrong, and what’s really real in the first place. Even as we are richer and more secure than earlier generations, there are also countless social and psychological adaptations that have to be made, and the problems we do have are less tangible and direct. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: We’re not built for this kind of complexity. The rewards are too great, the immediate gratifications too readily available, the threats too nebulous, the world and its horizons too vast. The mysterious relationship between madness and civilization has a name: increasing complexity. Late at night we wake up and face the creeping horror: that life itself as we know it is a social construction, one that ultimately cannot be real, only a fragment on top of an infinite abyss.
And handling greater complexity in the world requires not only new ideas; it requires a kind of spiritual development of the average person. It should hence be a societal goal to develop not only higher subjective states in each of us, but also to help more of us develop and integrate greater inner depths, and—if possible—to develop our ability to think more abstract thoughts, to cognitively grasp and relate to more complex realities. This can be described in the following graph:
Graph: Effective value meme versus psychological health. High value meme people often have less stable mental health and functionality, as they are more often in “far from equilibrium states”.
The graph may need some further explanation. It is a summary of the developmental traits of a general population, with higher value meme (the intersection of cognitive complexity, code, state and depth) on the vertical axis and “better psychological health” on the horizontal axis. “Psychological health” can here be understood not only as the absence of psychiatric diagnoses and mental illness but also one’s general wellbeing and the freshness and integrity of one’s mind overall. If you like, you can imagine one axis as one’s “stage” and the other as an agglomerate of how well you have managed to pass through the Eriksonian life phases you have thus far been through (did your mother treat you kindly, did you make friends as a six-year-old, did you form an identity as a teenager and so forth).
As you can see, in this admittedly schematic graph, many or most children have low effective value meme but relatively “good” psychological health. Of course, children also have mental health problems, but at least infants have less of them and young children have much lower rates than e.g. young adults. In childhood, there’s often that directness or freshness of experience that in some primary sense is “healthy”.
Between the two grey lines on the graph you find most adults. The greatest number of people develop to “conventional adulthood”, which means some loss in mental health as compared to the aliveness and simplicity of childhood, but the achievement of an average value meme and stage of development (e.g. the Modern value meme). A minority have their development stunted and remain at low value memes while their mental health deteriorates—and that’s where you find many or most dysfunctional and criminal people. Up until the development of conventional stages, people’s value memes seem to largely follow the psychological health and functionality of a person: it’s just difficult to become a reasonable person who internalizes the norms of society if you feel too bitter, confused or miserable and your social relations and habits are a mess.
High value meme is to some extent also tied to mental imbalance and dysfunctionality. A minority of adults develop to higher value memes (e.g. Postmodern and Metamodern) but must thereby also face greater inner obstacles. Many of those who develop exceptionally high complexity and great depth have minds oscillating in “far from equilibrium states”. I don’t have the data to prove it, but just by looking around my own circle and the people who respond to metamodernism, there is a striking pattern: very high intelligence, Mensa-level is standard, very high prevalence of ADD and ADHD, some autism (especially among the most gifted), dyslexia, very high prevalence of depression, some people who have very extreme personalities if not necessarily diagnosable, high prevalence of strong spiritual experiences, high prevalence of psychedelic experiences, high prevalence of psychotic breakdowns and so forth. In my own family, there is schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, anxiety and chronic pain due to nerve diseases just as there are highly intelligent and creative people. And among post-conventional thinkers you find lots of gay people and folks with non-binary gender identities and polyamorous lifestyles, however that fits in.
You get the point, right? There seems to be a pattern here: exceptionally high value meme seems to correlate with a lower level of mental health and stability, and in some sense “unusual minds” or atypical neurological structures. If you look at the biographies of spiritual masters, like Jiddu Krishnamurti and Eckhart Tolle, a similar pattern appears. Before their “awakenings” to recurring higher states, these people went through extreme inner turmoil—the edge of madness.
As my friend Nick Duffell has argued in his studies of British elite boarding schools, each society and subgroup have their own “psychohistory”, a collection of social conditions that affect the psychological development and personalities of the group. In sociology, similar arguments have been made, not least in the study of generations (from Karl Mannheim and onwards) and “cultural trauma” (Jeffrey C. Alexander).
Different demographics seem to have specific psychohistories, and the generative conditions for people’s life-shaping events can be affected. There appear to be social and genetic factors that cause the high value meme folks to also have greater mental vulnerability. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of this relationship, but I do believe the relationship is factual. The “most civilized” people, in a sense, tend to be slightly bonkers.
If this is correct, the conclusion should be clear: We need a society that helps more of us to marry high effective value meme to inner peace and stability, to mental health. In some few select people, you have the marriage of exceptional development with childlike purity of experience, mind and emotions. This, of course, is what society can and should strive to support, knowing fully well this is a tricky ride: A more complex civilization requires higher effective value memes, which seem to require greater inner obstacles to be surmounted, which is married to a greater propensity for losing grip on reality.
The only hope for civilization is found, thus, on the brink of madness. Think about it: informed naivety, magical realism, the crossroads between fact and fiction, the transpersonal perspective, the hall of mirrors, sincere irony—doesn’t it all reflect the madness of a psychotic episode? When we open up reality to be co-created in a transpersonal space, is this not an act of enlightened madness?
What kind of person can dive into madness and come out a deeper and more complex thinker? The kind of person we need. The metamodern mind, ideally speaking. Applied Existential Politics should support the spontaneous emergence of higher subjective states and greater existential depths in the population as well as a greater psychological robustness.
The acceleration of the developing world-system is a dizzying ride. As new and increasingly phantasmagoric and bizarre and subtle and complicated and mind-blowing phenomena press themselves upon us, life becomes a rollercoaster of greater heights—even touching the stars—and deeper valleys as nightmares crawl through the television screens and enter our living rooms. Not to mention social media and smartphones hijacking our limited attention spans. Subtler and more multidimensional games are played for higher spiritual stakes. More of us try to surf the waves of this madness, in the service of higher ideals. Those of us who try psychedelic drugs less often do so in the context of Dionysian “partying” and more often as serious Apollonian “soul-searching”.
Something lurks at the back of our minds. And we wake up at night. And the ground shakes and our heads spin and the skies crack open. Utter and profound confusion. Even a scent of madness; but also an opportunity to change our socially constructed universe, to shift our maps of meaning.
The question is not—as Fromm and many other humanist Marxists believed—how to create “a sane society” once and for all. That’s just not going to happen. Because madness is civilization’s shadow. And now as we’re crashing into a whole new level of civilizational complexity, we’ll get a whole new level of crazy to go with it. Hey, I told you it’s a tragic universe.
The question is, rather, how to create a society where a sufficient number of us develop the resilience to hold on during this crazy ride. That’s why we need an ongoing process that supports the development of higher states and the successful integration of greater inner depths. This process serves to cultivate an awakened public.
Messieurs dames—let’s give a warm welcoming hand for Existential Politics.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.
. Duffell, N., 2014. Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion – A Psychohistory. London: Low Arrow Press.
. Alexander, J., C., 2003. “On the Social Construction of Moral Universals: The ‘Holocaust’ from War Crime to Trauma Drama”, in The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 27–84.