The Lonely Crowd
a book by David Riesman
(our site's book review)
David Riesman’s classic The Lonely Crowd defines three types of "adjusted" conformists: tradition-directed, inner-directed and other-directed people. The first mostly relates, in America, to immigrants from peasant societies. The second relates to people who are guided and controlled by their superegos, which use guilt to enforce the person acting according to his upbringing.
Freud, who coined the superego concept
Sometimes such a person is run by the pressures from authoritarian father figures, sometimes from the built-in father figure in their superego, and sometimes from simply following what a nonpressuring father figure seems to want. But guilt and fear keep this person in check. To see the gross errors in guilt-and-fear-generating authoritarian cultures (like the U.S. and most other countries), see A Dream Deferred. To see the gross errors in authoritarian parenting, see Discipline That Works and P.E.T. and Unconditional Parenting and Authoritative and Democratic Parenting Programs.
Inner-directed doesn’t mean a person is directed by his inner self—some people get confused about this, and, unfortunately, many of them are famous writers and/or academicians who seem to have skim-read the book or they saw only what they wanted to see. Inner-directed means that when he chooses, the superego forces instilled by parents are what actually controls the decision. Other-directed and tradition-directed people are similarly “adjusted” conformists, run by authoritarian forces. The latter is run by “that’s what we’ve always done.” The former is run by “that’s what my peers expect of me.” All three types are obeying extrinsic pressures. All three are at effect.
Since there are relatively few autonomous people in the world, politics quickly became a public relations war full of manipulation of the unwary
Now think about what a democracy is. For a high quality democracy, we need autonomous, self-directed people impervious to manipulations of candidates blurting carefully crafted sound bytes, exaggerations, misinformation, and worse. Since there are relatively few autonomous people in the world, politics quickly became a public relations war full of manipulation of the unwary. Politicians think of constituents as sheep to sheer.
Politicians think of constituents as sheep to sheer
To support such a statement, we have only to point out that we should all notice what they actually do and what gets accomplished under their watch. Pork, earmarks, laws that favor giant corporations and go against the public interest—the list goes on. Okay, here's the biggie: Compare all that to what they said they would do if elected. Think of what they pretended to stand for and how they planned to represent you, the constituent, and now look at what actually happened. Even when they draft seemingly pro-constituent legislation, they build in just the right loopholes so their corporate buddies can squirm through them, avoiding the purported effect of the law. In other words, the whole game is rigged. It's just as much a scam as the infamous Nigerian princess scam.
The ACTUAL 'Nigerian princess' is some male criminal who is anything but a princess—and he's laughing his butt off at us suckers! Politicians are laughing just as hard at their gullible constituent sheep!
Politicians take full advantage of the fact that most of their constituents are inner-directed or other-directed, which are both easy to manipulate and fool. Politicians act as lackies for the corporate interests, only pretending to be interested in what their constituents want and need, which makes our actual political reality a LOW-class democracy that's closer to an oligarchy than a democracy, due to the fact that the ACTUAL power in our country effectively rests with a small number of people, as opposed to the democracy charade put on to fool us. (The vast majority currently disapproving of Congress and our political leaders is a good sign—at least they perceive an inkling of what's going on. See Psychological Dysfunction. See also The US is an oligarchy, study concludes.)
We need our citizenry to get off their butts, march on Washington, and tell them we're mad as hell and not going to take it anymore—we're paying politicians to administer a democracy, not an oligarchy!
Interestingly, most of the authors that write about The Lonely Crowd get it wrong, mostly because they repeat what others have written and don't bother to actually read the book. As a result, many believe that inner-directed means autonomous and self-directed, which is totally false. It means controlled by the superego—a form of conformity, of being at effect rather than being at cause.
Riesman's book is dry sociology to most—hard to read. So let us simply summarize his ideas like so (and this is back in 1950 when his book came out): there are several main cultural types: tradition-directed, inner-directed, and other-directed are what most, but not all people are. The tradition-directed type conforms to whatever his culture has done before, the inner-directed type conforms to the superego (which nudges them to follow the guilt-fueled rules they learned in childhood, mostly from parents), and the other-directed type conforms to the "crowd"—social, peer, media pressures. This type will "go along to get along." and will get as many Facebook "friends" as possible, trying for the impossible-to-achieve indirect self acceptance, thereby looking outside themselves for acceptance rather than looking toward their inner self.
Happily, and this is the critical part of any Riesman summary, he also included another type: autonomous. These people are not deterministically driven by extrinsic outer or extrinsic inner forces but—instead—they (intrinsically) run themselves. Like Erich Fromm, Riesman believed that we need more people—especially leaders—who are self-directed, self-actualized, autonomous people. He couldn't have been more right—and he put his finger on our main social dilemma: there aren't that many autonomous people around and the wretched state of the American "democracy" bears testament to that fact!
The Putneys describe the neurotic tendencies of the average, alienated, at-effect, conforming, Corporatocracy-manipulated American
Gail and Snell Putneys' classic book The Adjusted American: Normal Neurosis in the Individual and Society describes the neurotic tendencies of the average American. These are considered "normal" and even encouraged by the larger social structure. The authors present the theory that many of the social and personal ills of society are more or less based on the alienation of qualities from the self onto others or another person. Remarkably, hate and love both appear as ways of alienating qualities that we feel we cannot express and then either despise (because we don't want to express these qualities) or love (because we wish we could). The implied goal for all of us trapped-in-alienation (Al Gore calls for a spiritual reassessment of what this alienation means) people is to break this constant alienation process so that we can take control over our lives, however, this is difficult because of how much this process of alienation is encouraged by social pressures to conform to a certain ideal image.
The Putneys say that going beyond projection and alienation is the ultimate psychological goal. Achieving the ability to directly fulfill what they term "self needs" and provide total self acceptance for the individual appears as the way towards self-actualization and autonomy.
Riesman doesn’t imply that conservatives are more autonomous than liberals or vice versa, but that social engineering solutions have been the bane of the 20th century and, realizing this, Riesman saw the Progressives’ attack on individualism as an error and he saw that the best mode of addressing social problems was—like Fromm said—through knowledge and education, and movements composed of autonomous individuals as opposed to collectivist, “mass,” social engineering solutions. In this he trailblazed for The Third Wave—Alvin and Heidi Toffler's classic book and the world's new reality.
The collectivist, welfare-state mindset bred other-directed conformists
Riesman believes that to replace autonomous self-control with a locus of control focused upon the values of one’s peers would lead to a degradation of the quality of life wherever it occurred
Riesman disdained the Progressive-germinated other-directed social character in all its collectivist infamy. He wasn’t at all against the idea of community, but rather the idea of the loss of individuality in the name of mindless conformity in order to achieve the impossible dream Gail and Snell Putney have dubbed “indirect self-acceptance.” One either likes himself or he doesn’t. No amount of conformity can get a person liking himself. To substitute others’ apparent liking of oneself (e.g., on Facebook or Twitter) in place of one’s own self-liking (and to do so for "acceptance"), and to replace autonomous self-control with a locus of control focused upon the values of one’s peers, was a degeneration of control standards and personal integrity, and it would lead to a degradation of the quality of life wherever it occurred.
Riesman and the Putneys warned us about substituting others’ apparent liking of oneself (e.g., on Facebook or Twitter) in place of one’s own self-liking
Riesman isn’t championing the value of individuality compared to the value of community, but rather disparaging the very idea of trading in individuality for the nodding acceptance of the collectivity. (This is reminiscent of Darwin eventually realizing that cooperation was just as critical for evolution as competition.) Like Erich Fromm and Alvin and Heidi Toffler, he’s leery of mass man and mass conformity. He opts for individuality in the context of community, not individuality free of community.
Who could look backward at the extraordinary gifts of the Founders of the United States of America, who bestowed upon us an incredible democratic republic, and somehow miss the fact that this entire miracle was and is based upon individual freedom in the context of community solidarity? Not Riesman. He’s a pro-family, pro-community man bewailing the collapse of family and community. And he considers the other-directed mass conformity connections between people obsessed with consumption as a poor substitute for community. Thinking, responsible, autonomous individuals supporting politics, community and family were and are the magic formula—the balance to be struck—in Riesman-think. To Riesman, Alexis de Toqueville was right: the disease is conformity.
Other-directed mass conformity connections between people obsessed with consumption are a poor substitute for community
A summary of the meaning of David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd as opposed to the content, is that although other-directed, alienated individuals (who get run by the "social pressures to conform" the Putneys are referring to in The Adjusted American: Normal Neurosis in the Individual and Society) are crucial for the smooth functioning of the modern bureacratic organization, the down side is that people's autonomy gets lost, or never evolves in the first place.
Also, as the Tofflers said, we need to transcend both bureaucratic organizational structures and the other-directed personality structures that "thrive" in them, so perhaps smooth functioning bureaucracies is an obsolete aspiration (but wasn't back in 1950 when David Riesman's book came out). The Lonely Crowd also argues that society dominated by other-directed personality structures faces profound deficiencies in leadership, individual self-knowledge, and human potential—and any thinking person can see that this explicitly defines the 21st century quandry we find ourselves stuck in. He may not have predicted the Third Wave information civilization, like the Tofflers, but he was already presciently champing at the bit to people it with autonomous individuals, whether he realized it or not. Riesman came before Gail and Snell Putney and obviously influenced their thinking.
Both books are classics, Riesman's a classic sociological study of the American character, the Putneys' a classic psychological-sociological study of normal American neurosis and alienation. It is great thinkers like these two and the Tofflers and Fromm and Maslow that do the Big Picture thinking so few can do but so many need to learn from. One hopes millions will apply their great wisdom to the current scene, since so little that occurs seems guided even by serious thought, much less great wisdom.