Myth, Ritual, and Social Consensus

14 June 2012


The Myth of the Happy Family in

Mid-Twentieth Century Industrialized Society

In an early post to this forum, Social Consensus in Industrialized Society, I suggested that, since the advent of the industrial revolution, industrialized societies have passed through two stages of social consensus in the social organization of industrialized society. At present I consider industrialized societies to be in search of a third social consensus for the structure of an industrialized society. I have returned to this theme on several occasions, and wrote about the mythological dimension of industrialized societies in The Role of Ritual in Industrialized Society and Ritual and Myth in Modernity.

The first stage of social consensus under industrialization was the “factory system” that closely resembled the social organization of agricultural society, of which early industrial society was the immediate successor. The second social consensus of industrialization was the sanitized image of mid-twentieth century normalcy of neighborhoods, schools, churches, and hospitals. An important difference between these two previous forms of social organization is that the first was a mere accident of history — a displacement of the organization of agricultural production into industrial production — while the second was based on a modern myth.

A social consensus with a mythology attached to it is something far more powerful that a social consensus that comes about as a result of the accidents of history — i.e., a form of social organization that a society blunders into as a result of doing the best it can at each stage of development. When a myth is attached to a social consensus, that social consensus becomes a model to which people aspire to live up to.

What was the myth of the second industrialized social consensus? For convenience I will call it The Myth of the Happy Family, although the mythology is much larger than happiness or families narrowly construed. Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This imperative of likeness makes the myth of the happy family a mythology of conformism and rigid social roles. It is to be noted that this was not a religious mythology, but a domestic mythology.

I have many times quoted Joseph Campbell to the effect that a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. The rituals by which one participated in the myth of the happy family were the rituals of domesticity: father coming home from work, hanging his hat up, saying, “Honey, I’m home!” as he closes the door, with his wife standing there with a martini already prepared and handing it to him while two beaming children stand in the background, ready to hug their father after he has kissed his wife. The ritualized family evening meal follows next.

The larger social myth associated with the myth of the happy family is the myth of the happy family extrapolated, extended, and expanded to include social wholes: church, school, neighborhood, community, and nation were all to be “one big, happy family,” and the pater familias who presided over this beneficent and hierarchical structure was “the father of his people.”

For every myth, there is a true believer out there (or many of them) for whom a given myth is an adequate expression of the world. By the same token, for every myth there is a skeptic (or many of them) who feel shortchanged by a myth that did not and could not be, for them, an adequate expression of life. So it was with the myth of the happy family. Some gloried in it; others despised it. Because a myth reaches only a part of a mass population on a visceral level, for the myth to have social efficacy it must be policed by social and state institutions. The myth of the happy family could only be perpetuated by the brutal suppression of any non-conforming element that defied the myth or failed to fulfill the rituals by which the myth was reenacted in the daily lives of the members of industrialized society. For example, the myth of the happy family essentially excluded social mobility.

While the living and working conditions of the working class during the early industrial revolution under the “factory system” were appalling, and are remembered as such — there is no nostalgia for these conditions — the myth of the happy family continues to have its adherents. It retains a seductive quality precisely because of the power of its strong social roles and unambiguous expectations for individuals. People who feel discomfited by the complexities and shifting expectations of the contemporary world look back to the myth of the happy family as a model still to be instantiated by industrialized society.

This mythology still today influences how we live our lives — not only because of nostalgia, but for concrete, economic reasons. In fact, the myth of the happy family influences our architecture, as I tried to show in Industrialized Space and Time. Recent attempts at architectural traditionalism incorporating front porches and driveways and garages confined to alleyways are intended to reproduce a neighborly community where families sit on their front porch sipping lemonade and chatting with their neighbors who stroll by, all without being interrupted by vehicular traffic. It sounds silly to talk about it in this explicit way, but given the price of housing in industrialized countries there is serious money at stake in this quaint vision.

It is possible that contemporary developments are pushing us toward of social consensus that might be called The Myth of the Happy Individual. I don’t think that this myth has fully taken form yet, and I am not predicting that it will fully take form, but there are signs of it throughout contemporary society. There is an implicit paradigm of the well-lived life today as consisting of a highly diverse collection of personal experiences, as exemplified in a “bucket list” of things that an individual would like to experience before “kicking the bucket.” This is the vulgar version, but you may also recognize the happy individual as the fully self-actualized individual perched on the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Both myths — the myth of the happy family and the myth of the happy individual — are equally pernicious. Both engender far more unhappiness than happiness precisely because they attempt to enforce happiness as a norm. If your family isn’t happy, then there is something wrong with it and you’d better get it fixed. If you’re not happy, there is obviously something wrong with you and you probably should be in therapy. Life is hard enough as it is; to add the extra burden of the expectation of happiness makes it unbearable more often than not.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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3 Responses to “Myth, Ritual, and Social Consensus”

  1. You are right on here. The “Happy Family Myth” I think still has many adherents due to the relative stability it appears to have provided. The unknown is a fearful thing and even a somewhat stunted existence, but a relatively safe one, might be better in the minds of many. After all, better the devil you know than the one you don’t.

    For the intrepid that will clearly not be enough as you articulate. But for the masses, it may well be.

    Social stability is an important thing. I wonder, how much freedom must be sacrificed for that stability? Egypt is getting ready to find out as the military flexes its muscles and asserts what was a latent fact.

    America faces nothing so dramatic, but it does face some serious existential questions of its own.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Hi Greg,

      All of the mechanisms you mention here — fear of the unknown, desire for safety and stability, preference for the devil one knows — are all crucial to the moral psychology of stagnation.

      For some time I have been meaning to write about what I would like to call the structure of non-revolutions, by which I mean the institutions and attitudes that militate against social change, thought I haven’t yet felt equal to the task, so I haven’t yet written that particular post. The above post, however, may be considered a contribution in this direction.

      It has become commonplace these days (I’m sure you heard this commentator’s meme) that the US political system is “gridlocked” and can no longer change and adapt to changing conditions. From my point of view, this is a concrete expression of the mechanisms of stagnation.

      Almost all societies, as they mature, come to approximate a quasi-feudal condition in which social roles are rigorously defined and each sector of society fights to retain the privileges that it has at present.

      Best wishes,


  2. […] Myth, Rit­ual, and Social Con­sen­sus (geopol​i​crati​cus​.word​press​.com) […]

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