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The End of the Culture of Narcissism

Ashley Colby at UnHerd

Photo by Kier... in Sight / Unsplash

How did political conversation, especially online, become so crazy? Blame fossil fuels.

When Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, well into the post-war wealth boom that turbocharged the industrial era, he argued that narcissistic tendencies develop partially as a result of industrial society. He identified phenomena as disparate as the modern school system, sport, psychotherapy, advertising and consumer culture as playing a role in the development of widespread, unchecked narcissism. But he didn’t go far enough: it was a glut of energy resources that instilled in us the belief that we could control nature as if we were gods.

For decades, our standard of living in the developed world seemingly increased without end. The improbable access to energy coupled with crony capitalism turned wealthy societies into pure consumers, swallowing anything and everything the economy could imagine and manufacture. Our system was unrivalled in history. Our inner Narcissus was unleashed.

Two major trends influenced our narcissistic tendencies in this energy-rich universe: we developed personal meaning in consumption, turning what we wear, where we eat, and where we shop into our religion. Consumption became a signal of belonging in a world breaking apart any semblance of community.

We also developed a collective philosophy of progress that told us we have won history: we had conquered all the resource and material challenges of the past. We believed that our collective wealth as a species was only going to keep growing. No wonder, then, that progressivism, in its traditional sense, became the widespread political psychology exactly as the upward slope of oil consumption looked almost exponential.

These two widespread psychological outcomes unveiled the worst of our egocentric propensities. On the one hand: we identified with what we chose to consume, an inward-looking narcissism, displaying self-worth through ostensibly corporate fandom, a religion of the self. On the other, we displayed an optimistic faith in human limitlessness.

Fusing the two together, the abundance of cheap energy lumbered the developed world with a narcissistic psychosis. You can see this in everything from the overvaluation of an individual’s salary and power as measures of success to the denigration of caring roles and familial obligation. In each case, the focus is on the individual thriving while ignoring the interdependence that makes life possible.

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