A few days ago in Myth, Ritual, and Social Consensus I expounded what I called the myth of the happy family. In that post I made a number of corollary claims that I had planned to develop more fully, but which I did not at that time expand upon.

Two unexplained asides in the following paragraph, taken that from post, in particular require further elaboration:

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.

The two items above that I want to discuss are:

“a myth reaches only a part of a mass population on a visceral level”

“the myth of the happy family essentially excluded social mobility

As for the first item, one of the important distinctions between the function of myths in traditional (non-industrialized societies) and the function of myths in contemporary societies is that contemporary societies are mass societies. Those mythologies that date to the Axial Age derive from societies in which the presence of a living god or the presence of a living prophet in the midst of the people was considered commonplace, and possibly also the conditio sine qua non of political society. The great gulf between the rulers and the ruled in traditional societies was paradoxically wedded to an intimacy born of very small societies

Intimacy between rulers and the ruled in traditional societies has been a casualty of mass society. Today rulers and ruled communicate through mass media outlets such as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the internet. However skilled contemporary politicians become in the exploitation of mass media, it is still mass media and it is not a personal, face to face encounter — not even from a distance.

The exponential increases in population that accompany the early stages if industrialization and urbanization (the result of improved nutrition and improved medical care) create mass society, and mass society can only be reached through the mass media. Even if a politician today preferred to meet constituents face to face, it is physically impossible for any one individual to meet millions of people; any politician who disdained the mass media would be defeated, so that the use the mass media is strongly selective. However, once mass media becomes the primary tool of political communication, it changes the nature of communication. Mass communication is de-personalized. Another word for “depersonalization” is “dehumanization.” We have all felt this, that the bureaucratic organization of mass society is depersonalizing and dehumanizing, even if we hesitate to admit to ourselves the full implications of this feeling.

A small, traditional society is dominated by personal relationships and interactions on a human scale. As we have seen, this is impossible in industrialized societies. In anonymity of mass society, social sanctions and social rewards that functioned efficiently in small, traditional societies function inefficiently or not at all. It would be extraordinarily difficult, in the midst of a large conurbation to, for example, enforce “shunning,” since a shunned individual or family could simply move to another neighborhood within the same large city. It is not at all unusual in our time for individuals to “re-invent” themselves by suddenly finding new friends, going to different places and participating in different events than those that has previously given structure to their lives. This kind of personal reinvention was impossible in the past for those who remained within their community.

In traditional societies, mythologies were coextensive with the closed social group that constituted the society. If anyone was alienated by the mythology that permeated a traditional society, they would have to leave because they could not avoid it. This is no longer true. Today, a particular mythology may be dominant, but the minorities that do not share the mythology are significant. In the early modern period, several nascent nation-states sought to purge their countries of non-conforming elements, as when France sought to expel or convert the Huguenots and Spain sought to expel or convert the Jews. For ideologically-motivated monarchs who sat at the head of the dominant mythology, there was a strong desire to “clean house,” but this strategy turned out to be economically ruinous. The practice has not entirely disappeared, as the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews and recently several exercises in “ethnic cleansing” have sought to purge the body politics of elements deemed undesirable, but in democratic capitalism such efforts are difficult to carry out and counter-productive.

As a result of these trends, the dominant myth of a given mass society is probably only felt on a visceral level by a core minority in positions of privilege and status. This dominant minority that lives the myth might prefer that everyone shared their personal commitment to the mythology they understand to be central to their society, but such mythological conformity can no longer be enforced in fact, and an attempt to enforce it would be so socially disruptive that it would threaten the social cohesion of the society and therefore the myth itself.

As for the second item, that social mobility is largely excluded by the myth of the happy family, I suppose that some readers might find this an odd claim for me to make, since the myth of the happy family is so closely associated in the minds of many with the “American Dream,” and for many, again, the American Dream is nothing but social mobility: the you will eventually live better than when you started out, and that your children will live better than you, possibly joining the professional class and moving up in society not merely in terms of income and comfort, but also in terms of social status.

There are as many versions of the American Dream as there are hopeful Americans (and would-be Americans) dreaming for a better tomorrow for themselves and for their children. But in so far as the strong form of the myth of the happy family persists (and it is arguable that it no longer persists in its strong form at all today, even though it does persist in several weaker permutations), it excludes from under its “sacred canopy” anyone whose social status advances to the point that the rituals of domesticity by which individuals participate in the myth become impracticable or impossible. If you are always away rushing to meetings or flying to conferences, you can’t be at home to participate in daily family rituals. If you’re too busy to attend to domestic responsibilities yourself, and you hire help to clean or mow the lawn or to take care of your children, with each domestic responsibility relinquished there goes along with it one domestic ritual, and one less opportunity to participate in the myth of the happy family.

At least one of the drivers of social change in our time, which includes the process I have attempted to describe of seeking a new social consensus for the organization of industrial society, is the fact that the dominant minority who truly believe in and viscerally have felt the myth of the happy family are those who have been most successful and therefore most forced by circumstances to abandon the rituals of the happy family in order to attend to their duties to larger social wholes. Such individuals, trapped by their own feelings and beliefs, produce rationalizations and justifications for being absent from the formative events in their childrens’ lives, but precisely because they are true believers in the myth they know in their hearts that these rationalizations and justifications are just that — rationalizations and justifications.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Moral Borderlands

7 May 2010


One of the most problematic borders in the world today: but every border, though a limit, is also an overlap.

In his The Next 100 Years George Friedman characterized borderlands in this way:

“Between two neighboring countries, there is frequently an area that has, over time, passed back and forth between them. It is an area of mixed nationalities and cultures… It has a unique mixed culture and individuals with different national loyalties… But regardless of who controls it at any given time, it is a borderland, with two cultures and an underlying tension. The world is filled with borderlands.”

I cite this not as a paradigmatic definition, but because it is the most recent reference I have on borderlands. When I was looking up information on borderlands today I found that there is an entire journal devoted to their discussion, Journal of Borderlands Studies, so one can expect that borderlands have received many definitions and have been conceived in many ways.

Geographical regions have borderlands in space. Geopolitical entities have borders in both space and time. For that matter, we can identity the borders — well-defined or ill-defined — of almost any temporal phenomenon. That is to say, anything that exists in time will have a temporal border at its beginning and at its ending — when it comes to be from something it is not, and when it ceases to be and cedes its place to something that it is not (to employ Aristotelian language).

When I was thinking about it today, it struck me that there are moral borderlands, and moral borderlands, like geographical borderlands, are regions of tension and conflict. While I am sure that there are a great many examples that might be adduced, I am going to discuss only two of them that happen to be on my mind at present.

Several times I have cited an earlier post of mine, Social Consensus in Industrialized Society, in which I suggested that, in the wake of profound social changes wrought by industrialization, that societies have been casting about for a robust and sustainable way to live with the consequences of industrialization. In the terminology of today’s post, I would now say that the periods of transition between social models are moral borderlands.

A consensus on social organization means a moral consensus on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable within a given society. When one form of social order is breaking down and another is in formation but still inchoate, the moral conventions of the two different social models often clash. What is right for one age, is not always right for a later age, and at the point of time when those ages overlap, there is moral conflict between the representatives of the old order of society and representatives of the new order of society.

Moral conventions are deeply integral with the totality of social conventions, and indeed in a fine-grained account of social life there are a great many cases in which it would be problematic at best to distinguish what is a moral convention from what is a mere social convention without moral force. This may be less apparent today, in an age of relative tolerance and rapid change, but it is true to some degree even now.

In the agricultural economy of the pre-industrialized world it was commonplace for people to have large families. Children were put to work on a farm as soon as they were physically capable of even the smallest task. Another pair of hands was always needed for the labor-intensive task of subsistence farming, and having a large family also had the added benefit that, in the unlikely event that one lived into old age, there was a higher likelihood that at least one child would be willing to care for the aged parent in a world with no social safety net whatsoever. The alternative to being supported by a child was the most object poverty imaginable.

The misery of working conditions in the early periods of industrialization was compounded by the acceptance of institutions such as child labor. If children routinely labored on the farm, why should they not labor in the factory? It took time to sort this out.

For the subsistence farmer, a large family is “good.” Many other things are good as well, and the subsistence farmer is not likely to distinguish between eudaemonistic goods that make for a better and more comfortable life and strictly moral goods. As I noted above, in many cases it would be difficult to draw the distinction in any kind of rigorous way. The way of life is completely integral with the conceptions of life’s goods for the two to be separated without violence.

The first social consensus of industrialization included features now understood to be exploitative and inhumane.

The Industrial Revolution emerged in this context. Families displaced from rural circumstances for a variety of different reasons, or simply drawn to the growing cities for their intrinsic attraction, did not suddenly change their moral outlook upon moving into the city. A large family was still good. So people continued to have large families, and they put their children to work in the factory system as soon as they were able, just as they would have put them to work on the farm as soon as they were able to do farm chores. We now look upon industrial-scale child labor as a great evil, but it emerged from a moral borderland. The way of life of country people was retained after their move into cities, and it took time for this to change, just as it also took time for the factory system to demand skilled and educated labor. It is easy for us to condemn child labor and consign it to the horrors of early industrialization, but it is more important to try to understand how it came about — it didn’t come out of nowhere, but from the context of lives in the midst of change.

Another instance of moral borderlands that is on my mind is the use of nuclear weapons. I mentioned in a couple earlier posts (Revolution, Genocide, Terror and The Threshold of Atrocity) listening to Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity. The author begins with an uncompromising indictment of Truman as a mass murderer because of his decision to use newly available nuclear weapons to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not long after the end of World War Two, and throughout much of the Cold War, it became commonplace to speak of nuclear war as “the unthinkable.” And certainly in the context of mutually assured destruction, nuclear war had become unthinkable. But when the first nuclear weapons were made available, there was no conception whatsoever of nuclear war, and the use of the most recent weapons technology was far from unthinkable. On the contrary, the failure to use a new weapons technology in a war would be more unthinkable than the reverse.

The end of the Second World War saw the introduction of nuclear weapons, so there is a sense in which the Second World War was also the First Nuclear War. But we don’t think of it that way. The Second World War saw the introduction of many transformative technologies such as digital computers for code making and code breaking, ballistic missiles, and jet fighters. No less important were social technologies of military doctrine that both began and ended the war. German’s Blitzkrieg over Europe was a new doctrine, a new social technology, for existing armaments, just as the firebombing of Dresden was a new doctrine for the use of existing armaments. The war made men become clever in diabolical ways.

Nuclear weapons technology was one among many new technologies employed in the Second World War.

The Second World War was the culmination of mass warfare, the predictable outcome of the emergence of an industrialized society based upon mass man. We will probably not see its like again any time soon. The age of precision munitions is upon us, and this has already changed war dramatically. When we look at the casualty numbers of earlier wars and compare them to the casualty numbers of recent wars, the truly remarkable thing is how low casualties are now. While the role of intensive media coverage gives the impression of mass suffering, in fact far fewer people are suffering from war than during the twentieth century. It sounds heartless and cruel to say it straight out like that, and it is cold comfort to those who are suffering from war, but it is nevertheless true. At least for the time being, the age of mass war is over.

Though over now, as we noted above, the Second World War was the culmination of mass war, and nuclear weapons are the culmination of weaponry for mass war. Nuclear weapons aren’t good for anything except mass war, and they created a paradigm of mass war that became unthinkable the more it was thought about. But just as it took time for the evils of mass child labor to become apparent, so too it took time for the evils of mass nuclear war to become apparent. For those who condemn Truman for his decision to drop the bomb, there are a great many contemporaneous quotes to draw upon of those who saw clearly the nature of nuclear war. But the end of the Second World War was a moral borderland, and in the borderland there are two moralities and an underlying tension.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The first social consensus of industrialization included features now understood to be exploitative and inhumane.

Rarely do we fully come to terms with the extent to which industrialization has transformed societies. Western Europe and North America were the first to transform themselves. Today, even as we look on, the Industrial Revolution has come to China, and, to a lesser extent, to India. The double-digit economic growth of China over the past decade or more is not the result of the special competency of the Chinese leadership, it is a consequence of a one-time historical anomaly. Industrialization only happens once in the history of any given civilization.

The mid-twentieth century social consensus in all its glorious modernity.

Industrialized society is still groping toward a social consensus, still experimenting to try to find a social system that can coherently function in an industrialized society. Nothing is settled yet; the Industrial Revolution is still with us every day, still changing lives and society every day. It is possible that we may have entered an era in which socio-economic experimentation is stalemated and a genuinely novel social paradigm cannot emerge. But this is another question for another time.

The industrialization of society produced profound consequences through the mobility of labor and the concentration of populations in urban centers, among another developments.

The first social paradigm of industrialization was that in 19th century Europe (especially England), with masses of impoverished factory workers and a few rich owners — conditions deplored by Marx, and conditions that inspired Engels to write his The Condition of the Working Classes in England. This paradigm of social organization is frequently characterized as “social Darwinism,” though I think this inaccurate and misleading. While many social, political, and economic developments since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution brought an end to this early paradigm, traces of it survive in the idea of progress and even in the left’s concept of internal colonization, for the early factory system can be assimilated to this model.


The second social paradigm of industrialization emerged in the US in the middle of the twentieth century, with the television ideal of small town America and the nuclear family where dad goes to work and mom stays home to raise the kids. This idea has come under relentless criticism recently (cf. the book The Way we Never Were), and is now a source of ironic humor. Of course, it was never realized in fact. It was an ideal some attempted to put into practice. No social arrangement that aspires to an ideal — however insipid and mediocre that ideal may be — is realized in fact. The important thing is whether or not a given social ideal can function as an ongoing inspiration for a people. The ideal of feudal society also was never realized in fact, but it inspired and stabilized the Western world during its thousand years of medieval civilization.

We do not yet know what social consensus will emerge from contemporary industrialized society.

Now society is struggling to produce a third social paradigm of industrial society. Many proposals have been made, and the Cold War of the twentieth was an ideological battle over the form of industrialized society, but no consensus has yet been achieved. We can speculate as to what form settled industrialized society will take, but it should be clear to us that no such consensus exists as of today: today there is no social ideal that spontaneously commands the respect of all peoples in the industrialized world. Industrialized society is in its infancy, historically speaking, and is still crawling and groping to find its way in the world.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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