An out-take from Politics and the The Occult


On the problem of egalitarianism and ‘higher types’

In his last years the great humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow became troubled by the political implications of his psychology of “self-actualization.” Among other ideas, this entailed a concept of being “fully human,” which suggested that, in Maslow’s uncomfortable phrase, “some people are more ‘human’ than others.” Maslow wrote that “the problem of the ‘biological elite’ has inescapably confronted me in my efforts to build a theory of the good society.” By the “biological elite” Maslow meant “self-actualizing” men and women, individuals who, for one reason or another, “actualise” their potential, and, as result of this, experience a greater degree of psychological health than those who do not, evidence for this being the repeated recurrence of “peak experiences,” moments of an almost mystical sense of happiness and fulfilment. What sets “self-actualizers” apart from less psychologically healthy people – everyone from psychopaths to the merely discontented and neurotic – was, Maslow concluded, some innate, biological disposition, something, that is, inside them. To be sure, social and economic conditions can help or hinder one’s “actualisation.” But as Maslow points out, many of the “self-actualizers” he studied came from deprived backgrounds, and made real their potentials, in spite of adverse conditions. (In fact, in some cases, difficult conditions may even be a spur to “self-actualization.”) Maslow envisioned a time “when there is no longer social injustice to serve as an alibi or excuse for one’s own biological inadequacies” and when there “might well be a great increase of […] malicious envy of those who are more successful in their achievements.”

Thinking of ways to “protect the biologically gifted from the almost inevitable malice of the biologically non-gifted,” Maslow suggested something like a new “priestly class to which is given less monetary reward and fewer privileges or luxuries than the average members of the overall population,” given that  “self-actualizers” are less interested in material rewards than in the “metagratifications” or “intrinsic values” of “advancing beauty, excellence, justice or truth.”

Maslow’s vision of a kind of  Brahmin caste of “self-actualizers,” uninterested in the kind of material gratification that most people desire, and oriented toward more “spiritual” concerns, is a recurring fantasy in the world of occult politics. It’s the basis for Hermann Hesse’s monumental novel The Glass Bead Game, in which, in some unspecified future, a society of philosophers, artists and other “gifted” individuals form a cultural elite, set apart from the masses. In the 1920s, in a book called The Art of Being Ruled, the British painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, a writer not usually associated with anything even vaguely occult, suggested essentially the same arrangement as Maslow. Lewis argued that with the rise of democracy and egalitarianism, cultural values were increasingly being levelled and that mediocrity was becoming the norm, something we experience today as “dumbing down.” One result of this is that the intellectuals considered the average person a “yahoo” – from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – and the ordinary man saw the artist as some sort of freak. To safeguard high cultural values, and to maintain social order, Lewis argued that society should be split into two classes. Instead of the old, inequitable chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” – in which a small group of people get to do the things that most of the others want to do too – there would be “something like a biological separating-out of the chaff from the grain,” the “chaff” being the person motivated by material desires and entertainments, the “grain” being the philosopher or artist – or, in Maslow’s term, the “self-actualizer.”  See Abraham Maslow “Humanistic Biology: Elitist Implications of the Concept of ‘Full-Humanness’” in Future Visions: The Unpublished Papers of Abraham Maslow, ed. Edward Hoffman (Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, 1996)  

The reader will note that this is among Maslow’s unpublished works, suggesting that he was aware of the difficulty in discussing such inflammatory issues, especially at the time he wrote it, in 1968, when notions of what we call “political correctness” were first taking root. Today, although biological and evolutionary psychology are established disciplines, the difficulty in airing any doubts about the dictums of egalitarianism remain, and indeed, have only increased. About another paper, on the “failure” of liberalism, Maslow’s editor Hoffman remarks that it showed Maslow “slowing moving toward a stance that today would be most closely associated with neoconservatism.” (p. 160). That Maslow was also fond of the work of the novelist Ayn Rand, an outspoken advocate of capitalism and a critic of the welfare state, highlights the complexities of “spiritual politics.” Maslow was one of the major figures associated with the Esalen Institute, the famous West Coast counter-culture “think tank,” whose ethos was as far removed from Ayn Rand’s as possible, and whose lack of intellectual rigour eventually led Maslow to reject its approach. (See the Afterword to my Dedalus Book of the 1960s: Turn Off Your Mind (2010) where I tell the story of Maslow’s encounter with the Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls.) Self-motivation, personal responsibility and self-discipline – character traits of Maslow’s “self-actualizers” – have much in common with the “rugged individualism” associated with the heroes of Rand’s novels, and which was under attack in the 1960s and 70s by a variety of ‘alternative’ schools of thought, from the New Left to feminists.

Similar out-takes are available in Electricty of The Mind: The Anomalist 14.

6 thoughts on “An out-take from Politics and the The Occult

  1. Lewis argued that with the rise of democracy and egalitarianism, cultural values were increasingly being levelled and that mediocrity was becoming the norm, something we experience today as “dumbing down.”

    Except that “dumbing down” doesn’t come from excessive democracy. It comes from a belief that the market is a democracy.

    1. I think Lewis would agree with you; he was concerned about how what we call ‘market forces’ manipulate culture, lowering it to the ‘lowest common denominator’ under the guise of ‘giving the people what they want’. At the same time I don’t think you can ignore the fact that no one forces anyone to watch ‘X-Factor’ or ‘Big Brother’ – in which the difference between product and buyer is dissolved – when they could just as easily read Dostoyevsky – or Wyndham Lewis.

      1. Is the difference dissolved? With commercial TV you pay for the programme (the product) by watching the adverts.

        While it’s true that no one forces anyone to watch those programmes, cultural capital does come into play. Not only do people want to watch what everyone else watches so they can all talk about it together, but also ‘high’ culture excludes many people merely by being concidered ‘high’. It’s the reason why museum attendence is almost entirely middle class, despite being free for everyone.

      2. I come from a working class – blue collar – background and never felt excluded from anything, and still don’t; I write about both ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture. I think the whole ‘exclusion’ business is a lot of malarkey. It was through my own desire and efforts that I became acquainted with and passionate about ‘high’ culture. I go to museums with my children regularly and we are not middle class – as a struggling independent writer, I just about make poverty level. As Bernard Shaw made clear in the ‘Don Juan in Hell’ section of Man and Superman, the only exclusion is exclusion by choice. Your suggestion that some social force – exclusion – prevents non-middle class people from enjoying ‘high’ culture seems the kind of externally based excuse for one’s preferences that Maslow is trying to show is invalid. Shaw himself came from an under-privileged background, as did many of western civ’s greats, Maslow included. I am more interested in views of human nature that emphasize our own responsibility for our choices than in those that put that power elsewhere.

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