I talked with Paul Wachtel a few days before Thanksgiving in a rustic cabin in the woods. Far from his Greenwich Village milieu, he was in North Carolina to address a conference on economic growth — to argue, persuasively, that our unquenchable desire for more of everything has trivialized our lives.

A skilled psychologist and a keen observer of the American way of life, Wachtel brings his understanding of the human psyche to bear on a wide range of questions — such as why we’re destroying our environment; or why, in our pursuit of security, we’ve lost touch with basic human needs.

In his best-known book, The Poverty Of Affluence (The Free Press/Macmillan), Wachtel traces the source of many of our problems to what he calls our “isolating individualism,” which leads us to deny our dependence on natural resources and on each other.

In addition to writing social criticism for such journals as The Nation and The New Republic, Wachtel is associate director of the Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at the City University of New York, and a professor of psychology at City College. He also maintains a private practice.

— Ed.


THE SUN: You’re here to address a conference on “The Case Against Growth.” Why are you so concerned with economic growth?

WACHTEL: My concern began primarily with the environment — with the fact that we’re destroying the Earth, and that people don’t want to hear about it, don’t want to know. I had a sense that understanding the role of denial and repression — which had been very relevant in my thinking about psychotherapy — could also be useful here. One of my starting points was to look at how ecologists went about alerting the public to environmental dangers. It struck me that the message was always one of belt-tightening, of getting off the gravy train. As a psychologist, I sensed this was not a message people would hear.

I was led to question the relationship between accumulating goods and a sense of well-being. I wanted to make a case for there being less of a connection than we usually assume: that an ecological approach to life would not necessarily mean a life that is sparser, more ascetic, less gratifying. I wanted to demonstrate that much of what we’ve done in the pursuit of growth has in fact led to a less satisfying life.

THE SUN: Can you give some examples of a way of life that is both ecologically mindful and gratifying?

WACHTEL: I think the easiest way is to look at the negative implications of our present way of life. Through most of human history, people have received their primary gratifications from personal relationships, a sense of community, a sense of being part of something larger. It’s almost as if we were biologically programmed to be gratified in that way. The present emphasis on seeking gratification through material goods is relatively new. Throughout history, material goods were simply not available to most people — much less an increase in goods. There were always small numbers of elite individuals who could accumulate goods, but most people couldn’t. Thus, we’re now seeking our gratification in a way that is not consonant with our history. As a result, we’re actually losing many of the sources of gratification that were once available. It’s very rare nowadays, for example, to find three generations of a family living in the same town. Because of attempts to increase productivity, and individual pursuits of higher income, our culture has developed an increasingly competitive orientation. Families have lost the connectedness people once depended on for the fulfillment of their needs. In a typical American family today, grandparents live in one city, parents in another, and the grown children live elsewhere, each sibling in a different city. The competitive nature of our society has led not only to alienation from the family, but also to the loss of a sense of community and cooperation.

The mirror image of this, then, is the alternative we might seek. When we realize the things we’ve lost, we can begin to recover some of them.

There are those who might argue that there are no benefits to industrialization and technology. I don’t think that’s the case. I think technology enhances our lives to the extent that we use it intelligently. We’ve reached a level of affluence and comfort which allows us to enjoy our lives more than prior generations — but not if growth remains our central concern. By its very nature, this system requires that people desire more all the time. In order to function, it requires that we view the cup as half-empty, rather than half-full. Thus, dissatisfaction with our lives is inherent in the system. We’re persuaded that feeling good depends on what we’ll have in the future, not what we have now. No matter what point we reach, we continue to focus on what lies farther down the road. As long as growth is central to our system, we cannot redefine our concept of a gratifying lifestyle. If we begin to notice and enjoy what we already have, then we might be more content with our lives, more cooperative in our interactions. If we can use our science for medical advances and stop using it to pollute the atmosphere and poison our food, we’ll live longer, healthier lives.

THE SUN: Many of these same concerns inspired thousands of people in the Sixties and early Seventies to leave the cities and start intentional communities of the their own. What, to your mind, has been the legacy of that movement?

WACHTEL: I think that a lot of what was attempted in the Sixties was on the right track. Unfortunately, it’s fashionable these days to look at that period as a naive time in which people did foolish things. I think one problem in the Sixties was that we didn’t extricate ourselves sufficiently from the assumptions with which we were brought up. We live in a very individualistic society, in which people believe they shape their own destinies. In the Sixties there was a movement toward community, but the larger thrust was still covertly individualistic. This was manifested in slogans like “Do your own thing.”

But more significant than that was the failure of almost all the leaders of the Sixties movements to think through the issue of how to create sustained communities. If the radical changes in consciousness had been sustained, an enormous transformation would have occurred. People failed to notice that the changes sprang out of and thrived within structures: the movements were basically rooted in and around campuses, and in spin-offs of campuses — people who graduated and stayed on to form little communities in places like Madison, Wisconsin or Ann Arbor, Michigan or Austin, Texas.

Many individuals genuinely felt they had changed. They felt so different that they couldn’t imagine going back on that vision, and thought it utterly impossible that they would end up in the mainstream jobs they have today. But to say that they sold out is to evaluate them in an individualistic way, when in truth the problem was societal: there were no new structures for them to move into. There was certainly no place to thrive as an adult with children. The communities of the Sixties were self-consciously youth communities, and could therefore not be self-propagating. Another key slogan was “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Inevitably, you reached that birthday and found yourself outside the group.

I suspect that movements like those of the Sixties will emerge once again. And I would hope that one lesson learned from the past would be an understanding of the importance of transitional structures. The success of the women’s movement can in part be attributed to the consciousness-raising group, which served as a kind of intermediate structure that helped sustain the movement. The consciousness-raising group was based on the notion that even though an individual might be able to identify problems, she could not stand up to the social forces and sustain that vision alone. I think it’s crucial to recognize that the consciousness-raising group also functioned as a consciousness-sustaining group. It took into account that we live contextually, that individuals can’t just change inside and remain different in external systems that haven’t changed.

THE SUN: Most psychologists — as well as most spiritual teachers — emphasize inner change. Political activists stress outer change. How do you reconcile these?

WACHTEL: The two sides — inner change advocates and political activists — are really more like each other than they realize, since they share society’s general way of sharply differentiating inner and outer.

Psychology, as both a shaper and a product of the culture at large, tends to make the same sharp distinction. In the psychoanalytic movement, for example, there’s a great deal of emphasis on concepts like the inner world versus external reality. As a psychotherapist and theorist, I’ve repeatedly questioned that sharp differentiation between inner and outer. Much of my work has been about the way the two continuously shape each other. Our internal state influences the way we act with others — which, in turn, leads them to act toward us in ways that either confirm or change our inner state.

Some of the concepts in my work involve the vicious circles and potentially virtuous circles in life. To illustrate a vicious circle, let’s say that I’m usually self-effacing and unassertive. I will act in ways that are self-abnegating, not letting my needs be known, in effect inviting other people to abuse me. After all, every neurosis requires accomplices. Inevitably, people will start to disregard my needs, taking advantage of me because I’m encouraging them to. That’s bound to make me feel very angry. But that anger is unacceptable to me: it’s the part of myself I can’t take. So I try even harder to show how really nice I am by being even more cooperative. And the same thing will happen over and over.

Conversely, if I begin to be more assertive and clear about my needs, other people will begin to interact with me in a more gratifying way. Less anger will be stirred, and, as a consequence, I will have less need to suppress that anger by being overly cooperative and self-abnegating. What you have then is a virtuous circle.

One of the errors of the psychoanalytic movement is that it places the anger inside: it has been within you from childhood, and you are continuously defending against it by being self-abnegating. I’m suggesting that you can’t distinguish inside from outside so readily because there’s a circle. The anger may have started long ago, but the anger I’m defending against now is the result of what just happened to me, as a consequence of the last time I defended myself.

I think one can apply that same perspective to the broader issues of consciousness. My consciousness depends not just on me and what I’m doing, but also on the world I live in, the people I relate to, and the relationships I create with them. The idea that there’s a split between inner and outer is basically an anti-ecological vision because it doesn’t see us as rooted in our context.

THE SUN: To some extent, most of the self-improvement therapies of the human potential movement are subject to this criticism.

WACHTEL: Much of the human potential movement tends to be couched in highly individualistic terms. It seems to pit authenticity and a sense of reaching within oneself against a view that acknowledges the ways we are interdependent. To me, an ecological vision is one that stresses interdependency.

An example of what seems anti-ecological to me is the emphasis on being responsible for oneself. I don’t object to people taking responsibility, but we need to recognize that how we feel and what we do and the choices we make are inevitably influenced by people around us. That’s not a sign of weakness or conformism, per se, but simply a sign of being human. We need to take responsibility for the atmosphere we create in our interactions with others, because it will, in turn, come back and create us.

Similarly, a lot of Abraham Maslow’s descriptions of the self-actualizing personality seem not to be sufficiently attuned to the way in which people are inevitably influenced by their moment-to-moment interactions with others. The self-actualizing person is portrayed as somehow transcending what I think is a human necessity: that we are continuously responsive to what goes on with others. I don’t think we can or even should transcend that. Perhaps it’s a limitation, but it’s also a potential.

The human potential movement was in part a reaction against be behaviorism, which viewed human beings as reactors: stimulus happens and we are the passive responders. Human potential advocates said, no, we are not purely reactive; we listen to inner voices. But they focused on only half the dialectic. I think the more complete view is that we are not reactive, but responsive. We live in the world and we are affected by what goes on around us. We can’t just look within ourselves.

THE SUN: Could you talk about what you refer to in your writing as “isolating individualism”? Is it uniquely American?

WACHTEL: This country was, to some degree, founded by people trying to escape from structured societies and the repression they created. Many were escaping communities that were oppressive — that enforced religious conformity, for example. Among the immigrants who came here, there were probably more non-conformists than were randomly distributed in their own populations. I don’t know whether that’s been sustained over generations, but at least the founding of the culture was by people who were saying, “I want to do things my way.” At that point, it was probably more a good thing than a bad thing. It was a reaction against a highly-structured society; it was a corruption in the right direction, so to speak. But as our society has become less and less structured, individualism has run rampant, and it prevents people from seeing the big picture.

I don’t think this phenomenon is uniquely American, but I think it is, to some degree, a phenomenon of industrial societies, particularly those that have, like ours, evolved from the Western-European model. Japan and the Soviet Union, which are also industrial societies, are less individualistic in the sense that I am talking about. It has reached its apex here.

Someone who helped me to see most clearly some of the consequences of individualism was a British economist named Fred Hirsh, author of a book called Social Limits To Growth. His best metaphor involves a description of what happens at a parade, where people can’t see very well. Someone whose view is blocked stands on tiptoes. But he blocks someone else’s view. So the other person then has to stand on tiptoes as well. Soon, nobody sees any more clearly than before. In fact, everyone now has the additional problem of being tired. But if one individual gets off his tiptoes, he’s now lower than everybody else, which puts him in an even worse position. Only a group solution can work. The first step is to make a pact: everybody agrees not to stand on tiptoes. The second step is to determine the source of the problem. Maybe if the smaller people were in the front and the bigger people in the rear, everybody could see comfortably. That takes a cooperative orientation, a shared social understanding that our society is especially lacking, and which is needed to solve a lot of our problems, both social and ecological. And if we can’t arrive at this out of some larger ethical vision that it’s right because it’s good for everybody, we can at least recognize that each individual will be better served by considering the group’s well-being.

THE SUN: In The Poverty Of Affluence you say some people think there’s too much emphasis on psychology today. But you think there’s not enough. How do you reconcile your allegiance to psychology — which is very individualistic — with your ideas about greater social awareness?

WACHTEL: I think that the people who feel there’s too much psychology are on the mark, to some degree, but I think that what they’re really criticizing is the wrong kind of psychology. I think we need a more contextual kind of psychotherapy, taking into account that we live in relation to others. Most of our models don’t do that sufficiently.

Freud said the goal of analysis is to turn neurotic misery into everyday unhappiness. That’s typically Freudian, very clever, but I’d like to see us address everyday unhappiness as well. There’s a lot of everyday unhappiness that’s rooted in the social structure, in our values, in our way of life, that needs to be understood psychologically. The human potential movement, in a way, has been concerned with everyday unhappiness. The idea is that it’s not enough just to get rid of neurosis — we can go further than that. I’m very sympathetic to those aims, but I think there’s a lot more we need to do. I see many of the economic and social and political evils in the world as directly connected to everyday unhappiness. In other words, it’s my hope that if people were more gratified in their living, more able to relate to each other, more connected, that this would affect the dynamics that lead to war and racism and poverty. That’s a statement I make with great trepidation, because it sounds simplistically naive. I certainly don’t think that if people are nice to each other, evil will be eliminated. On the other hand, people’s dissatisfactions and frustrations do find their way into militarism and aggressive nationalism and racism.

THE SUN: In contemplating all these dilemmas, do you ever feel despair?

WACHTEL: There’s a part of me that is an inveterate optimist. As a New York Knicks fan, I have to be — I suffer with them year after year. Of course, I do worry when I think about the vicious circles we’re caught in. But I believe that if we can find a few points of interception into the circle, we can begin to turn things around. The virtuous circle is as much a part of reality as the vicious circle. I keep trying to reach people, with the hope that if a few people exert leverage in a few places, a virtuous circle can at least potentially come into play. Then, increasingly more powerful forces for change can occur.

When I look back on the Sixties, I realize it would have been absolutely and utterly inconceivable to me then that the world would be the way it is: that Ronald Reagan would be President, that our society would be so increasingly acquisitive, that the growth of the underclass would have proceeded the way it has. I really thought twenty years ago that today we would look back on the kind of race relations we had in the Sixties as a remnant of some dark age — like slavery and the era of Jim Crow — and that full integration and equality would have been achieved. Obviously, I was extremely wrong, which can be grounds for pessimism. But I do think that something radical and powerful and extraordinary happened in the Sixties. We just didn’t know how to consolidate it, to keep it going. Still, although much of it has been cast aside, the existence of a magazine like The Sun is an indication of a spirit that has continued.

We need once again to get people to rethink, “Is this the kind of life I want to live?” or “Is ‘making it’ really what I want?” With that radical questioning is the potential for very substantial changes. And if, this time around, people over thirty are trusted (obviously I have more of a stake in that than I had in 1968), and if an inter-generational commitment is made, and if a real effort to get people to join could occur — instead of a splitting and dividing, good guy-bad guy — it seems to me that there is a possibility of carrying forward what we began in the Sixties.

THE SUN: Do you have to deal personally with any guilt or sense of complicity in a system of which you’re one of the more privileged?

WACHTEL: You’ve touched a raw nerve. This is something I think about and struggle with. I do lead a privileged life. I’m well paid as a professor. My wife is also a therapist, and we have a very comfortable income. I’m troubled by it because I know that I’m not good or pure or strong enough simply to give it all away. I contribute to causes and charities, perhaps more than most people at my income level, but a lot less than I think I should. I justify it in part — or rationalize it — by offering myself as an object lesson of how even a well-intentioned person is corrupted by living in our society.

But I would vote for a candidate who would tax people at my income level very highly. In fact, I am very interested in trying to understand people’s resistance to taxes. This may seem an odd thing to be curious about, because people take it for granted that one ought to be opposed to taxes. Although I’m not happy with a lot of where my tax money goes, I do believe I should be taxed at a much higher rate.

Freedom is wonderful in many ways, but freedom is also a burden. Erich Fromm was very illuminating when he showed that fascism was a result of people’s retreat from the terrible burden of freedom. But in Fromm’s analysis, those who escape from freedom are always escaping into something bad. I think that we need to be aware that too much freedom can also be bad. I personally would feel relieved and less guilty if I were required to give away some of what I have. Again, individualistic versus collective decision-making comes into play. We could say, “This is ridiculous. There are people on the streets, people without housing. Why do we need another VCR?” Require people like me to pay higher taxes, and let’s get real needs met.

This is an issue I still struggle with. If I were a better person, I think I’d be making different choices. From one moral perspective, people like me shouldn’t keep as much as we do. From another perspective, our consciences shouldn’t be burdened with that terrible choice.