Not Jordan Peterson’s Carl Jung (A Reading From My New Book)

In this section of the book, I explain Carl Jung’s view that 20th Century ideological extremism is in part a reaction to the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and urbanization. Jung wrote in “After the Catastrophe”: “Thanks to industrialization, large portions of the population were up-rooted and were herded together in large centres. This new form of existence—with its mass psychology and social dependence on the fluctuations 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.” You can find the book for sale at most of the usual places, but here are some links:

Here’s the excerpt:

But what was wrong with German life before and between the two world wars that stimulated the archetypes of rage, such as Wotan, to emerge? What disturbed people so deeply that they instinctually found sociopathic figures who personified their rage? Jung emphasized two related causes in “After the Catastrophe,” and while he did discuss the humiliation of World War I for the Germans, neither of his chief points was about that. The first cause he cited was the urbanization and massification of people, and the second, going along with that, was the rise of the large, dominating modern state. The first cause he described in this way:

“As I have said, the uprush of mass instincts was symptomatic of a compensatory move of the unconscious. Such a move was possible because the conscious state of the people had become estranged from the natural laws of human existence. Thanks to industrialization, large portions of the population were up-rooted and were herded together in large centres. This new form of existence—with its mass psychology and social dependence on the fluctuations 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.”[i]

So, the uprooting of people in the industrial revolution, which had continued apace up to and through the war and interwar years, created a new kind of person—a mass man.[ii] Jung is saying here that there are two reasons why industrial urbanization had this effect. The sheer numbers of people working and living so closely together created a dehumanizing “herd” mentality. They created a climate in which the individual could feel lost or overwhelmed in the crowd. Such a person could feel as though his insignificance and anonymity meant that he had little moral responsibility to act in any situation. As Thomas Jefferson argued much earlier in his defense of agrarian democracy against the Hamiltonian push for commercialization, the manufacturing class did not make great citizens. He wrote to John Jay that the “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to it’s liberty & interests by the most lasting bands.”[iii]

As we know, Jefferson lost, and Hamilton won the battle of the agrarian versus the commercial way of life. What was lost during the process of urbanization is significant and remains largely uncompensated. In rural life, people experienced more solitude, so they were forced to remain aware of their individuality and moral agency. They experienced directly the fruits of their labor if they worked on farms or were craftsmen, work that also reminded them of their individuality and moral agency. They dealt with a relatively few people, among which their families and relatives loomed large, so their community bonds were naturally stronger. They created real relationships with their neighbors as well, because they saw each other frequently and naturally cared for each other’s needs. In these small ways, they were known and could know others and themselves, instead of getting lost in the crowd.[iv]  

In addition to this point, as Charles Taylor explains, rural people could experience the fearsome and primal forces of nature, especially the mystery and danger of the wilderness, as spiritual forces. As human beings began to conquer nature, as they envisioned themselves as controlling and manipulating what was once wild, they lost this very palpable direct access to the type of numinous experience well depicted by the story of Christ’s temptation in the desert. Out of this shift came a new understanding of God, what Taylor calls “Providential Deism,” and a new understanding of man in “exclusive humanism.”[v] So, not only did mass man lose individuality and real social connectedness, but he lost a feeling of direct contact with the divine, which as we know is for Jung a central element in retaining a sense of individual balance and responsibility.

Jung observed that the material rewards to be had in urban areas, namely working for wages, were precarious in a new way. Whereas in a pre-industrial setting, the peasant’s livelihood might have been affected by the “wilderness,” as in an act of God such as a drought or flood, in the post-industrial urban environment the worker’s livelihood was affected clearly by the actions of other men whom he would never see. Worse yet, it was affected by a mechanism beyond his or supposedly anyone’s control–the market. In the liberal formulation, the market, while made up of human actions as Adam Smith had explained long ago, was not the product of planning or any ethical intention. Further, to the extent that governments intervened in the economy, and they most certainly did in all economic systems Jung knew about at the time—fascist, Nazi, communist, authoritarian, and liberal-democratic—they did so not in the interest of individuals, families or groups, but with abstract economic growth in mind. All of this added up to a great dehumanization with its social and political repercussions.

Jung’s observations in 1946 of the huge changes in lifestyle and mentality between the peasants’ life and the lives of workers are reminiscent of Marx’s observation almost a century earlier that capitalism “has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.”[vi] Jung, however, observed that liberal rhetoric to the contrary, “free trade” in the 20th Century was not so free as Marx might have imagined. Of course, the Nazis and fascists practiced corporatism, and the Russians communism, but the Americans and Western Europeans were also creating something other than a free market–what came to be known as the “welfare state.”  “The steady growth of the Welfare State is no doubt a very fine thing from one point of view, but from another it is a doubtful blessing, as it robs people of their individual responsibility and turns them into infants and sheep,” he wrote.[vii]

Here we should not think of the “Welfare State” as referring simply to social welfare programs, but the tendency of the Western state to interfere more and more in the economy generally and in regulating, planning and organizing many areas of life, such as banking and finance, economic development, farming and food, education and health care, all in the name of human welfare. As people in liberal countries became more dependent upon government for solutions of all kinds, they too participated in a kind of ideological possession. Jung wrote of “the accumulation of urban, industrialized masses—of people torn from the soil, engaged in one-sided employment, and lacking every healthy instinct, even that of self-preservation. Loss of the instinct of self-preservation can be measured in terms of dependence on the State, which is a bad symptom. Dependence on the State means that everybody relies on everybody else (= State) instead of on himself.”[viii]

But Jung was not necessarily envisioning only state-centric manifestations of ideological possession, and this is particularly important for understanding events in the first part of the 21st Century. How exactly ideological possession manifests itself is not as fundamental as the motivations and feelings underlying any manifestation. Whether it is revealed in a traditional political takeover or in movements that fly under and around the now diminishing power of the state, the underlying motivations and feelings include the longing for the sublime, for the supra-human, and for vivification via participation in something bigger and better than oneself. What Taylor calls “exclusive humanism” tended to “draw the compass of human life too narrowly.  Pursuing the goods of life and prosperity, while eschewing ‘enthusiasm,’ in a world designed especially to favour these ends, seemed to make life shallow, devoid of deep resonance and meaning; it seemed to exclude transports of devotion, of self-giving, to deny a heroic dimension to our existence; it reduces us by enclosing us in a too-rosy picture of the human condition, shorn of tragedy, irreparable loss, meaningless suffering, cruelty and horror.”[ix]

In other words, life used to be rougher but also much more alive. The price of technological civilization was a deadening of the spiritual senses, and a diminishment of the feeling of being alive. The social, cultural and economic forces that caused this sense of diminishment and dehumanization, and that subsequently caused people to throw themselves into massive ideological upheavals as a means of compensation, are still with us today, and they have become much stronger and more pervasive than they were post-WWII.  

Since 1946, the rural/urban dynamic Jung mentions above has gotten much worse. Especially in America, we have seen the virtual destruction of the independent family farm, and with it small towns with all their businesses, places of worship, cultural practices and traditions. We have literally witnessed the destruction of the relatively independent rural way of life. Populations have shifted to urban and suburban areas to such a degree that the U.S. government recently instituted a program to incentivize people living and investing in rural areas, creating “Opportunity Zones” with the stated intention of revitalizing them (but perhaps with the effect of hammering the last nail in their coffin by turning them into bedroom communities for nearby cities).[x] Small midwestern towns linger in a sort of half-dead state, having lost many families who had lived for generations on their land. Due partly, no doubt, to boredom and lack of a sense of clear purpose in rural populations, alcohol and drug addiction are rampant. Rural people often lack access to decent medical care, not to mention nutritious food. In fact, rural and inner-city areas are plagued by similar problems. Both are treated by the rest of society as the detritus left behind by economic progress, something to sweep under the rug.

Even in the 1970’s Wendell Berry could see the unfolding of this great upheaval. He described it in the starkest and most affective terms when he compared what had happened to white rural communities to the fate of Native Americans—the “conquerors” bringing a seemingly ineluctable destructive commercial growth:

“Time after time, in place after place, these conquerors have fragmented and demolished traditional communities, the beginnings of domestic cultures. They have always said that what they destroyed was outdated, provincial, and contemptible. And with alarming frequency they have been believed and trusted by their victims, especially when their victims were other white people.”[xi]

Resonating with Berry’s lament is the scenario outlined by Carl Jung in his comments, which I touched on earlier in this chapter, in which the Western world modernized, moving away from the agrarian life and toward urbanization and industrialization. Jung noted the reality of overbearing change in modernity, the destruction of traditional means of independence, spiritual disintegration, and their coincidence with the prevailing ideology of liberal democracy and capitalism.


[i] Jung, “The Fight with the Shadow,” 222.

[ii] Ortega y Gasset was among the first to recognize this phenomenon in The Revolt of the Masses, first published in 1930.

[iii] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, Paris Aug. 23. 1785. Accessed from the Monticello website: https://home.monticello.org/

[iv] Wendell Berry’s novels do a good job of portraying these aspects of rural life.

[v] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Pr., 2007), 245, 318.

[vi] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Penguin Classics), 2002.

[vii] Jung, “After the Catastrophe,” in The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 10: Civilization in Transition (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Pr., 1978), 201.

[viii] Jung, “After the Catastrophe,” p. 200-201.

[ix] Taylor, A Secular Age, 338.

[x] “Opportunity Zones Resources”, Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, accessed August 16, 2018, https://www.cdfifund.gov/Pages/Opportunity-Zones.aspx.

[xi] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015), 6. A political philosophy from Latin America, Buen Vivir, is actively attempting to push back the type of conquest to which Berry is referring. See Oliver Balch, “Buen vivir: the social philosophy inspiring movements in South America,” The Guardian, 4 Feb., 2013: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/buen-vivir-philosophy-south-america-eduardo-gudynas.


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