Moral Neophilia and its Gloomy Prophet

Moral Neophilia and its Gloomy Prophet

Some news stories missed by the mass media are signposts of deep historical change. This is a condensed version of one that recently appeared in Stars and Stripes, the U. S. military magazine:

Camp Zama, Japan, Feb. 14 – The army is ordering its hardened combat veterans to wear fake breasts and empathy bellies so they can better understand how pregnant soldiers feel during pregnancy training. This week, 13 non-commissioned officers at Camp Zama took turns wearing the ‘pregnancy simulators’ as they stretched, twisted and exercised during a three-day class… [Male NCOs] all over the world are being ordered to take the Pregnancy Postpartum Physical Training Exercise Leaders Course, or PPPT, according to health promotion educator Jana York…”[Pregnant women] shouldn’t push themselves too hard or participate in high-impact activities such as snowboarding, bungee jumping, or horse riding”, York said.

York also described the male soldiers as being ‘timid’ on their first day of pseudo-pregnancy exercises, unlikely to be the correct adjective. Combat veterans, including those with no women in their own units, were ordered to do the training. An Army study had found that when female soldiers did not take physical exercises during their pregnancy, they frequently failed physical tests on their return.

Whether this is just one more bed of Procrustes generated by obsessive egalitarianism, or a display of feminist sadism, the more interesting question is why such grotesque adventures advance so relentlessly today. One persuasive answer can be found in the writings of the late Phillip Rieff. Rieff, who died in 2006, was the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, but he bore little resemblance to his academic colleagues. More like a modern version of an Old Testament prophet, he was a deeply and broadly learned grand theorist, more like his 19th century predecessors than the social thinkers of more recent times. He was above all a scholar on Freud, whose papers he edited. However, he was not at all a ‘Freudian’, as that term is commonly understood, but a pessimistic student of civilization in general, drawing on Freud to develop an interpretive framework all his own.

Rieff had much scholarly recognition in his lifetime, but he never reached a wider public. A memorable lecturer, he sometimes wrote densely clotted prose, getting worse in his later years. His most immediately influential books were his first two, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), and The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1965). They unveiled his complete re-interpretation of Freudian thought, as remote from the original as that of Augustine was from Plato.

The ‘scientific’ claims of Freudian psychoanalysis were by then already being discredited, a process that has continued. But that little concerned Rieff, who treated Freud as a profound but ultimately unsatisfactory philosopher, on whose work he could build. He rejected the idea of Freudianism as a ‘liberation’, preferring the pessimistic conservatism of Civilization and its Discontents. Whether or not Freud would have agreed, to Rieff he should be read mainly as a guide to the indispensability of order and restraint. He thought that Freud had rightly identified a ‘primal sense of guilt’, but failed to explain it with his hypothesis of a parricidal ‘primal crime’.

Rieff, by comparing past historical cultures, classical, Judeo-Christian, and ‘post-Enlightenment’, offered a different hypothesis. He maintained that the bedrock, the real defining principle of all historical civilizations, was not found in their social, political, and economic arrangements, or even their religious theologies, although these came closer. Underlying even the latter, according to Rieff, were what he called the interdicts of a culture, its taboos. ‘Interdicts’ did not define what people thought they ‘should’ do, but what they were compelled to do; in fact, in a culture with powerful interdicts, acting against them would not merely be regarded as ‘immoral’, but as impossible, in the same sense that jumping one’s own shadow is impossible.

The Freudian ‘liberationism’ of 1960s neo-Marxist gurus like Herbert Marcuse appalled Rieff. He saw the idea of limitless human possibility as the basis of an existential terror, which had only been superficially banished by ‘the triumph of the therapeutic': the replacement of good and evil with sickness and health, efficiency and inefficiency. Primal, formless,, uncontrollable instinct is paralysing and isolating, preventing trust in ourselves or in others. Only a full system of ‘interdicts’ can save a culture. The interdicts can be occasionally eased by accepted periodic ‘remissions’, like the suspensions of traditional moral rules common in Mardi Gras and in harvest festivals found worldwide, but these actually strengthen the interdicts.

The real threat to the interdicts comes from egoistic transgressions, which may be the work of anyone from popular artists to successful gangsters, and if the transgressions increase in scale and are not resisted, they gradually become the new interdicts. Every culture is a constant dialectic of prohibitions and permissions, and there must be an ‘unalterable’ interpretive authority to maintain the prohibitions. Otherwise, the primal self merely ‘expresses the fecundity of its own emptiness’. If everything could be expressed by everyone identically, nothing remains to be expressed individually. The supreme activity of culture is to prevent the expression of everything, and hence to prevent the one truly egalitarian dominion: nothingness.

He thus takes a different position from the Canadian philosopher, George Grant, who once defined modernity as ‘no taboo’. A better prophet, Rieff thought that only applied to brief transitional periods, like the 1970s. He correctly anticipated that modernity would rapidly convert what had once been transgressions into the new taboos. Scientific reason banishes supernaturalism, and permanently revolutionary capitalist technology banishes scarcity, but progressive rationalism does not banish guilt, merely giving it new objects. At the end of his study of Freud, Rieff argued that Western culture until the 20th century had been the creation of three ideal character types: classical political man, dedicated to the glory of his city, religious man, dedicated to the glory of God, and, via Enlightenment liberalism, economic man, believing in doing good for others by doing well for himself, whether individually, through capitalism, or collectively, through socialism. But what was now surviving from economic man was psychological man, beyond ideals and illusions: at best a narcissist, at worst a thug.

The children of psychological man, raised without repressions, regard all authority as illegitimate. They enter into a society without sacred hierarchies, seeking salvation only in ‘the amplitude in living itself’, a world that can only end in moral squalor and chaos. Binding moral imperatives do not depend on the ‘reason’ of psychological man, but on guilt, fear, and faith, generating obedience, trust, dependence, and communal purpose. The psychology of normless release goes with the growing imposition of ‘practical’ restrictions, driven by universalist egalitarianism.

Rieff thus became the Savonarola of the post-1965 ‘counterculture’. In Fellow Teachers (1973), he savagely attacked rebellious students, hippie dropouts, and their acquiescent and applauding professors, contemptuous of their slogans of ‘Love of Humanity’ and ‘Power to the People’. “We will see in true light the craven aping and interminable apologies for the transgressive types at the bottom: the perverts, the underclass, all those who can do no wrong because they have been wronged…”

He endorsed Max Weber’s theory of charisma, but deplored its secularization: ‘no charisma without creed’. He did not mean traditional theologies; ‘creed’ was above all moral, an ordering of interdicts and remissions. True charisma does not abolish limits, but imposes new ones. Piety and submission to wisdom were the only paths to greatness of soul, happiness, and common life.

Rieff’s bleak pessimism and unabashed defence of legitimate authority mean he is unlikely ever to become popular. But he provided a more instructive guide to the real course of modern egalitarian rationalism than its celebrants. Astute ‘religious atheists,’ like Christopher Hitchens, sometimes reach the edges of what Rieff was saying. So have surviving religious traditionalists, despite their temptations to sink into obscurantism. Both realize that egalitarian rationalism is not moving the world to freedom, justice, and happiness, but to a kind of madness, in which ‘human rights councils’ police egalitarianism’s incoherent new standards of blasphemy and sacrilege, and male soldiers are forced to pretend they are pregnant women. Transgressions need to be resisted; otherwise they will destroy culture and civilization altogether.


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