Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Philip Rieff on the Failure of Normative Institutions

Inspired by a conversation about Philip Rieff with one of the ablest and smartest lawyers I know, I pulled down The Triumph of the Therapeutic from my shelf this week and was reminded what an extraordinary (if highly peculiar) book it is. Amid the langour before the new academic year begins, consider this lengthy passage in light of the topics we frequently raise here at MOJ:

Historically, the rejection of sexual individualism (which divorces pleasure and procreation) was the consensual matrix of Christian culture. It was never the last line drawn. On the contrary, beyond that first restriction there were drawn others, establishing the Christian corporate identity within which the individual was to organize the range of his experience. Individuality was hedged round by the discipline of sexuality, challenging those rapidly fluctuating imperatives established in Rome’s remissive culture, from which a new order of deprivations was intended to release the faithful Christian believer. Every controlling symbolic contains such remissive functions. What is revolutionary in modern culture refers to releases from inherited doctrines of therapeutic deprivation; from a predicate of renunciatory control, enjoining releases from impulse need, our culture has shifted toward a predicate of impulse release, projecting controls unsteadily based upon an infinite variety of wants raised to the status of needs. Difficult as the modern cultural condition may be, I doubt that Western men can be persuaded again to the Greek opinion that the secret of happiness is to have as few needs as possible. The philosophers of therapeutic deprivation are disposed to eat well when they are not preaching. It is hard to take Schopenhauer at his ascetic word when we know what splendid dinners he had put on, day after day, at the Hotel Schwan in Frankfort.


The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves. Many spokesmen for our established normative institutions are aware of their failure and yet remain powerless to generate in themselves the necessary unwitting part of their culture that merits the name of faith. “Is not the very fact that so wretchedly little binding address is heard in the church,” asked Karl Barth, rhetorically, in 1939, “accountable for a goodly share of her misery—is it not perhaps the misery?” The misery of this culture is acutely stated by the special misery of its normative institutions. Our more general misery is that, having broken with those institutionalized credibilities from which its moral energy derived, new credibilities are not yet operationally effective and, perhaps, cannot become so in a culture constantly probing its own unwitting part.

It may be argued against this position that Western culture was never deeply believing—at least not in the Christian manner which, in a number of its most persuasive varieties, encouraged the seeking after individual salvations at the expense of a collective one. Even so, Christian culture survived because it superintended the organization of Western personality in ways that produced the necessary corporate identities, serving a larger communal purpose institutionalized in the churches themselves. Ernst Troeltsch was correct in his institutional title for the moral demand system preceding the one now emerging out of its complete ruin: a “church civilization,” an “authoritarian and coercive culture.” What binding address now describes our successor culture? In what does the self now try to find salvation, if not in the breaking of corporate identities and in an acute suspicion of all normative institutions?


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Of course it is with capitalism that private vices are transformed into public benefits (Bernard Mandeville), and it is with capitalism that we find the proliferation of wants and the corresponding belief that many of these wants now have the status of needs (which is of course true, hence the concept of relative deprivation). The normative institutions Rieff refers to include what sociologists call “reference groups” and the larger institutions or “corporate bodies” that grow out of and depend upon such groups. Only ideologies or worldviews (or aspects thereof) consonant or compatible with capitalism, that is, those capable of blessing or ignoring the aristocracy of Capital while crowding out the authority of “the Good,” can flourish in such an environment: thus the predominance of and default preference for utilitarianism or consequentialism, pragmatism, and materialist ideologies (e.g., scientism) among “cultural elites” over ancient Greek philosophies, humanist traditions, and traditional religious worldviews. I attempted to introduce the causal role of capitalism in the destruction or deformation of the reference groups that have historically socialized individuals into beliefs and values cultivated in deference to “the Good,” as well as the civilizational, social, and cultural consequences of the destruction or deformation of these groups in this post at ReligiousLeftLaw: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2011/05/the-good-capitalism-toward-an-appreciation-of-the-meaning-of-socialism.html

And I subsequently expand on several themes introduced in that post here: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2011/07/the-economics-of-unhappiness-a-syllabus-.html

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 9, 2012 2:36:56 AM

Marx's " most original contribution to the theory of belief formation",was actually not as original as it appears, for the failure to recognize "the authority of the Good" is God, has existed from The Beginning.

Without freedom, there can be no innovation, but that does not change the fact that a Capitalistic System can lead to materialism when we no longer value The Spirit of The Law.

Posted by: N.D. | Aug 9, 2012 10:18:16 AM

N.D., I'm wondering if you read carefully the linked material.

The reference to Marx and belief formation is specifically about ideological formation and thus the generation of "illusions" and false beliefs owing to the nature of how capitalism works as an economic system. It is not about deference to the authority of the Good as such but is invoked here as causing the sort of social-psychological obstacles that make it difficult if not well-nigh impossible for individuals and groups to go beyond ideology (there may be other, non-capitalist related, social-psychological obstacles, but I've only gestured in their direction in the second post). In other words, it prevents individuals in a capitalist society from coming to a critically rational appreciation of the nature of their social and economic circumstances: for example, the social relations of men (in an anthropological sense) come to appear as the "natural" properties of objects, hence such things as "commodity fetishism" (other things are subject to such fetishism as well: money, forms of capital...). Relatedly, but distinct, is the phenomenon of social alienation. Yet another example of an ideological illusion (one that embodies the fallacy of composition) is "the inference from the fact that a given worker is independent of any specific employer, to the conclusion that he is free from all employers, that is independent of capital as such." Moreover, some workers can, it is true, become capitalists, but the nature of the system as such is that not all workers can become capitalists, although there's a widespread distributive belief to this effect (suggesting the ideological value, capitalist class-strengthening and worker-class weakening effects of upward mobility). Overcoming sundry ideologies, false beliefs, cognitive biases, and so forth is a necessary but not sufficient condition for recovering widespread deference to authority of the Good rather than submitting to the aristocracy of Capital.

As Jon Elster has explained, there are a host of propositions assumed or advanced by proponents of capitalism: "(a) The best life for the individual is one of consumption, understood in a broad sense that includes aesthetic pleasures and entertainmnet as well as consumption of goods in the ordinary sense. (b) Consumption is to be valued because it promotes happiness or welfare, which is the ultimate good [associated with neo-classical welfare economics]. (c) Since there are not enough opportunities for consumption to provide satiation for everybody, some principles of distributive justice must be chosen to decide who gets what. (d) The total to be distributed has first to be produced. What is produced depends, among other things, on the motivation and information of the producers. The theory of justice must take account of the fact that different principles of distribution have different effects on motivation and information. (e) Economic theory tells us that the motivational and informational consequences of the means of production are superior to those of the various forms of collective ownerships."

Elster notes that "in the traditional controversy over the relative merits of capitalism and economic systems, the focus has been on proposition (e). Elster proceeds to discuss propositions (a) and (b). And it is here that we learn of Marx's own conception of the "good life" which, in short, is about "active self-realization" rather than passive consumption (one might say that capitalism encourages passive consumption as a type of self-realization!). So, whatever one might think about Marx's own conception of "the Good," which involves a notion of self-realization superior to consumption both on welfarist and non-welfarist grounds, it reveals Marx's belief in the necessity of deference to "the Good" generally in a way that transcends capitalist ideology. The problem with Liberalism in all of this (which is often wrongly blamed for social and cultural effects that are the prerogative and in the province of capitalism) is that it neglects the role of the economic system in endogenous preference formation, a process that makes a mockery of Liberalism's notion of the sanctity and sovereignty of individual preferences (desires and wants). So while it at least does not dictatorially impose a conception of the good life on its subjects, it allows the socio-economic system to distort or pervert individual preferences such that, say, those associated with consumption come to dominate or become the default model of what constitutes the good life.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 9, 2012 11:31:00 AM

Patrick, with all due respect, I did carefully read the linked material. Marx's premise was flawed because he believed, as Socialists do, that The State should serve as father and thus define that which is Good. Capitalism is merely an economic system that has the ability to flourish and be fruitful as long as we recognize The Spirit of The Law.

"Call no one Father but your Father in Heaven." - The King of kings

Posted by: N.D. | Aug 9, 2012 12:33:43 PM

great blog, thank you and keep us updated.

Posted by: Los Angeles Lawyers | Aug 9, 2012 12:40:43 PM

N.D., The fact that you would make the following claim: "Marx's premise was flawed because he believed, as Socialists do, that The State should serve as father and thus define that which is Good," assures me again, that you did not read the original material or my subsequent post with sufficient care or else you would not (or should not) make such a claim. Marx was highly critical of "the State," and he had an independent theory and therefore definition of the Good having to do with self-realization, as I explained above: for the details, see Jon Elster's essay. "Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life," in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1989). THE STATE IS NOT IN ANY SENSE "A FATHER," NOR DOES IT DEFINE THE GOOD. This is the same Marx who spoke of the "withering away of the State" in the struggle to realize a communist utopia, which involves self-realization of the individual for the sake of the community. As to how Marx understood "the State," capitalist and otherwise, please read with care Jon Elster's Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge University Press, 1985), but especially Ch. 7, "Politics and the State," pp. 398-458.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 9, 2012 1:10:52 PM

Patrick, to be clear, by "State" I am referring to "a political unit consisting of an autonomous state inhibited predominantly by a people sharing a common culture, history, and language". One need look no further than this past Century to understand the struggle to realize a "communist utopia" resulted in death and destruction. The Marxist conception of the good life, leaves God out of the equation. Without God, there is no Liberty and Justice for all.

Posted by: N.D. | Aug 9, 2012 1:39:12 PM


The original complaint from your end had to do with how Marx conceived of (what he belived about) the State, so I'm not sure how your definition has any bearing whatsoever on that, unless you can demonstrate how Marx subscribed to your definition, which he clearly did not.

To be clear, I'm not talking about "the State" as you define it (there being no such empirical/historical entity as that, except in the minds of xenophobic nationalists), nor am I talking about what putative Marxists and socialists have done in the name of Marx (any more than you would want to talk about all of the horrible things done in the name of Christ). Your latest response is a classic example of a "red herring" and "shifting of the goalposts," if not a straw man. I'm talking about the views of Marx, an elementary but no less important distinction. Again, careful reading is a desideratum in a discussion such as this.

And while it is true (and no surprise or revelation) that God is not essential to his definition of the "good life," I have not ruled out the fact that it IS indispensable, by definition, for those who are theists. And, unlike you (it appears), I believe that agnostics or skeptics, atheists, theists, and religious non-theists alike can all possess plausible and reasonable conceptions of "the Good" (these having, for our purposes, the status of relative truths, as no one this side of heaven is in possession of absolute truth: or even if they be in possession of same, they can never simultaneously possess the absolute authority and confidence that they are in such possession, given the epistemic properties of human nature: there's always the possibility that one is deluded, mistaken, wrong, and so forth, given our status as fallible human beings) and that a democratic polity should be responsive to those conceptions (as to one way how this might occur, see George Sher's Beyond Neutrality: Perfectionism and Politics, 1997).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 9, 2012 2:16:20 PM

What Marx believed, was that God was not essential to the survival of the State.

Posted by: N.D. | Aug 9, 2012 2:39:04 PM

If there is no Truth of Love, then anything can become permissible.

Posted by: N.D. | Aug 9, 2012 5:16:35 PM

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