Our world is without doubt insane. However, it’s usually artists with songs like “Mad World” or “Crazy World” or books like 1984 and Brave New World rather than professionals who keep pointing this out to us. A teenager going to school nowadays is much more likely to get the message that they are crazy rather than the world. Nearly 20% of American adults experienced mental health problems in 2019, before the pandemic and the situation is worse among teens and has worsened since the pandemic.
Even so, in the wake of WWII, it became painfully obvious that a society can be sick. That human nature and society can have conflicting demands, and hence that a whole society can be sick, is an assumption which was made very explicitly by Freud, most extensively in his Civilization and Its Discontent. Before Freud, Karl Marx’s theory of alienation described the estrangement of people from aspects of their human nature as a consequence of the division of labour and living in a society of stratified social classes. The attack on the insanity of society has always come from the unpopular Marxist left. Erich Fromm wrote in The Sane Society (1955):
In the 19th century, inhumanity meant cruelty; in the 20th century, it means schizoid self-alienation. The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots. True enough, robots do not rebel. But given man’s nature, robots cannot live and remain sane, they become “Golems”; they will destroy their world and themselves because they cannot stand any longer the boredom of a meaningless life.
Today when we are talking about mental health problems we often use the word “functioning”. A kid with ADHD is not functioning in the classroom. We medicate them so that they become “functioning”. One kid with ADHD put it this way: you want me to take medication because it makes me “controllable”. So, it seems Fromm wasn’t too far off with his prediction.
For some reasons the neoliberal capitalist right never thinks that there is much wrong with society. What could possibly go wrong with a free market society in which people can freely choose whatever they like? Don’t get me wrong, I love liberty and self-choice as much as the next best person, but I have never believed that unbridled competition always brings about the best outcomes for humanity. I have never bought into this as many states have to sponsor high-quality TV programmes that would never be made otherwise. A capitalist may well argue that they shouldn’t be made with tax-payers’ money if there isn’t enough demand for them.
In The Code of the Extraordinary Mind: 10 Unconventional Laws to Redefine Your Life and Succeed on Your Own Terms (2016) Mindvalley founder Vishen Lakhiani gives the following self-help advice:
This goal freed me from having to depend on others for love or to require it from them. I love my kids and my wife, but I cannot demand that they love me back, and setting goals for myself that are largely dependent on someone else leaves me powerless. This is true for everyone. We should not be attached to receiving love from someone else.
The advice Lakhiani gives is to follow only yourself, never depend on other people, and transcend the limits of your culture and personal relationships. He tells his readers to bend the rules of reality in order to be successful, but he never questions our idea of success. In brief, it is an extreme kind of individualism. However, he misses the point that from an evolutionary point of view humans have always depended on each other for survival and reproduction. Love hurts precisely because humans depend and depended on each other. Love without attachment is not love and love requires trust. Humans were never meant to go it all alone. This is a recipe for us to become controllable robots, without feelings functioning in a society whose only rule is higher productivity.
There are many ways our society is insane, e.g. the US military spending budget is 11%, while it is a meagre 4% for education. However, from an evolutionary point of view reproduction is the most interesting one. One of the early findings of positive psychology was that people without children are happier than people with children. From an evolutionary point of view, a society which leaves people feeling that they lose out when they have offspring is sick or dysfunctional. I am not promoting higher fertility rates and overpopulation, however, the ultimate “goal” of evolution is to ensure survival and reproduction, so this is the best indicator that there is something seriously wrong with society. An analogy are animals in captivity that refuse to reproduce: it’s precisely because they don’t live in their natural environment.
What’s more, many people nowadays not only think they are better off without children, they also think they are better off without a partner. As of 2022, nearly 50% of US adults are single. That’s 126.9 million unmarried and unacknowledged people according to the U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Again, I think everyone should have the right to remain unpartnered and childless. However, for almost all of human history most people have always been happier when they had a partner and children, most of us wouldn’t be alive if it hadn’t been like that.
There are many psychological and biological signs that things are wrong. Most people are probably not aware that cases of postpartum depression have been rising for a long time and in the past two decades a new phobia has been appearing, tokophobia — the fear of becoming pregnant (see graphic above).
Our capitalist society is valuing productive jobs and financial success and has been neglecting caregiving jobs, a lot of which are poorly paid and have low status (from teaching to dental assistants). Mothers are often worst off, not getting paid, getting little support, having low prestige and being cut off from society. This has never been the case before in human history: mothers got the most support of all. This kind of alloparenting was highest in hunter-gatherers where mothers typically spend less than 70% of their time parenting and basically all members of the band take turns in caregiving. Mothers nowadays are alone with their babies, almost all of the time.
Tokophobia may well be a measure of how healthy a society is. I am pretty sure that it will be increasing in our society until it becomes a term as familiar as arachnophobia. Another thing I am pretty sure of is that the most vulnerable and sensitive people in society are what I have called hunter-gatherer types. Hunter-gatherers only work about 20 hours a week and have much higher levels of social support (especially in child rearing) and less competition than farmer and herder societies. Therefore, it is typically hunter-gatherer types who are at the forefront of criticising society, but it is also hunter-gatherer types who are at the forefront of being afflicted with problems like tokophobia.
There are no easy recipes for staying sane in an insane society. People have evolved different preferences, values, and needs. Knowing yourself and remaining authentic to yourself is perhaps one of the few pieces of advice that work for everyone.
For more on the hunter-gatherer neurotribe check out my :