The West is being engulfed by a wave of engagement. There is an umbrella term for this engagement, although it is not entirely clear whether this is a self-styled slogan of the activists or a disparaging predicate of the critics: woke, referring to a higher state of clarity and insight. Despite this common denominator, this kind of engagement has many different faces: climate, race, gender, social justice, and migration. And all these different currents have their own follower base, their own language and symbolism, and their own outrage.
The engagement also exudes a strong sense of urgency and a certain enlightened absolutism. As street and Twitter activism, it is sometimes downright aggressive; more parliamentary versions advocate states of emergency and are ready to override democratic processes and fundamental rights. The engagement also has great determination and certain posturing because the time of divergent opinions and dissent is over. Opponents are characterised as mentally ill people with a phobia.
In progressive circles, these movements find much resonance, perhaps because they appeal to nostalgic feelings of excellence and emancipation. Perhaps they revive the social engagement of the 1970s. After all this neoliberal flatulence, there finally seems to be room for inspired action again and hope for the world. If we hurry.
Critics seem to be on the defensive. The most common objection is that this engagement rather ostentatiously flaunts its virtue. But what is wrong with virtue? What is wrong with correctness, political correctness in this case? Besides, the loudest critics are often representatives of populist groups and they don’t actually play a role in social discourse. Still, woke seems to have some sharp edges with her cancel culture of speakers, academics, books, rituals and old heroes.
How should we judge woke? As a blessing descending upon the West, or a curse? Are wokies our social vanguard, the trendsetters of a new view of how people relate to each other and to nature? And will the conservative and unconscious majority follow naturally, as happened with the emancipation movements of the 1970s? Will the populist movements evaporate because we can warm ourselves to the fire of an inspiring, new and collective challenge? Or is woke the symptom of modernity in confusion? And to add a systemic perspective: is there anything that is hidden from view by the drumbeat of woke?
To answer these questions, we need to examine the air we breathe, the water we swim in, in short, the zeitgeist in which we live. That dimension of our lives that we hardly perceive because of its obviousness and ubiquity. How would we characterise that zeitgeist?
Modern consciousness is ambivalent
When individual liberation collectively broke through in the 1960s, after, philosophers, artists and scientists showed us the way in the centuries before, a gigantic reservoir of unleashed individual creativity, energy and ambition was released. With this, we were able to make great social progress for decades and fully enjoy the newly acquired freedoms. Vitality and ambition splashed off the television screen. We broke the shackles of hierarchy. Church and homeland became objects of ridicule. We were going to live our own lives, and no longer those of dad, mum or the priest, and we would improve the world. Modern life, a consequence of the emancipation of the individual, got an incredible boost in the 1960s and 1970s. It was of an impressive reality and expression in lifestyle, gastronomy, fashion, art and science.
Was it sustainable, this liberation euphoria? What about our freedom now, one of the pillars of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948? And the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are they an expression of a successful worldview or a flight ahead, a sign of despair? And poverty, has it been somewhat eradicated? In Burundi and Mozambique perhaps not quite yet, but then perhaps in the Netherlands? More than half a million Dutch households live in poverty. If money is not bliss, have we at least become happier together? The DSM-5, the handbook of officially approved mental disorders has more than doubled in size. Burnout is social disease No 1. And although there have never been so many psychologists, there are many more clients. On a waiting list. Our homes are spotless because of washing machines, hoovers and all-purpose wipes, but is the same true for the environment?
What seemed obvious, that the essence of our modern consciousness was the freedom and unfolding of the individual, and that all those free individuals would create a perfect world, does not hold up on closer inspection. When all freedom had been lived, we still turned out to be unhappy, and the world was not yet perfect, on the contrary.
We bump into an important misunderstanding of modernity. Its essence is not individual freedom, it is ambivalence. Ambivalence because the I, the ego, is the dominant identity of modernity. And the ego is ambivalent. It is not happy because it is free – that freedom increasingly turns out to be a burden – it is happy when it gets external affirmation, and unhappy when it gets no likes. This ambivalence is the powerless, impotent impasse of the self.
What are the consequences of this ambivalence and this focus on the ego, and how is this related to the rise of neurosis?
Ego and neurosis
In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud divided the human personality into 3 parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the primitive and instinctive part of our brain, the superego is our conscience, our moral sense. The ego is the realistic, rational part of our personality that mediates between the instinctive desires of the id and the moral authority of the superego.
The ego is not the only dimension of our humanity, and the ego is not unique to modernity. But the I am and I want have become dominant in modernity. The ego identifies with thoughts and with appearance, and it is not intrinsically okay but only conditionally, namely only if it is affirmed. It is a mental construct, constantly comparing itself to others and depending on external validation. And although all spiritual traditions downplay the ego’s fumbling, for Westerners, it is an addictive and persistent conditioning.
Eckhart Tolle calls this ego dimension the “pain body”. The pain body is that aspect of the ego where all unprocessed trauma is dormant. The pain body feeds off everything that goes on in our heads, our judgements and negative thoughts. When we identify with these thoughts, we find ourselves stupid, ugly and failing. As we keep giving attention to that hellish grinding machine in our heads, this negative self-image is constantly reinforced. This is how the pain body stays alive and can even grow.
Thousands, probably millions of people torment themselves by identifying with the ego and thus feeding the pain body. Burnout, stress, impotence, aggression, you don’t have to be a psychologist to see and know that there is untold psychological suffering in the Western world. Neuroses of any kind are the mental pandemic of modernity. And the chronology of neurosis runs absolutely parallel to that of modernity.
Jungian psychologist and philosopher Wolfgang Giegerich has interesting reflections on our neuroses. According to Giegerich, we can recognise neurosis by its absolute nature. Neurosis arose at the moment when people started to consider and interpret the typical questions of modern consciousness, of the ego: “Whom should I be”, or “How should the world be”, from an absolute point of view. Although modernity seemed to be precisely the age of freedom and relativisation, there was a regression to the age of group consciousness, where everything was absolute: heaven or hell, God or devil, upstairs or downstairs. According to Giegerich, in neurosis, something old that man actually wanted to say goodbye to suddenly re-enters through the back door without anyone noticing, namely the absolute of group consciousness. In neurosis, reality is viewed only with the criteria of absoluteness.
Do you recognise these kinds of statements, in the world around you? The “absolutely unacceptable!”, the “absolutely necessary!” Although modernity brought us precisely individual freedom, and thus the relativisation of the absolute, the awakened activist relativises nothing. There is no compromise of reasonableness, measure and rationality there. It is the pure acting-out of the absolute. With the absolute, the neurosis shows that it resists concrete experiences or illuminating nuances with compelling conviction and is immune to rational insights. Although the neurotic psyche is irrational, it strongly clings to its irrationality: to avoid micro-aggressions, one becomes an aggressor; in the fight against discrimination one discriminates against others now than before; bodies claimed to be social constructs require physical interventions to change them, and to get rid of fossil fuels we burn trees.
The totem pole of the neurotic psyche is the idea of social engineering; it is our most fundamental modernity synthesis. But social malleability, real life teaches, is an illusion. And if we lose that illusion, we are helplessly lost. In general, you can say that neurosis is the refusal to enter the real world. The world of limited social malleability, of good and evil and fate, of intrinsic suffering as part of human existence. So where should it go, this collective meaninglessness, the ego’s latent disquiet and aggression? After all, the brewing discontent is becoming unbearable for more and more people.
Our limitless freedom has a downside, it led to the pretence of the malleability of life. Nowadays we are responsible for our emotions, our relationships, our careers, and for our whole lives. Now it is also our “own” fault when things go wrong, and that starts to chafe.
Guilt used to be instilled in us at an early age. Seht, Wohin? Auf uns’re Schuld, we learned from Bach. But I used to be able to bring my guilt to God. He would forgive me. Or I dragged original sin with me to death if necessary, at least to be liberated in the kingdom of Heaven. There was also an alternative, I could project my guilt onto another group and when that collective projected guilt was big enough we called that catharsis “war”. But now that God is dead and we find conflict barbaric, and aggression unacceptable, even on a micro level, the modern I is lonely and alone. It can no longer bear its guilt, can no longer endure and is looking for a way out.
And there is. If salvation is no longer to be found with God, and we are no longer allowed to project our guilt onto others, there is only one direction left. I introjure my “guilt”; I project it onto myself. On a dimension of the self that I think I can change. Because over the self I think I have control. My dissatisfaction, my unconscious guilt I reject, transform and project onto a concrete object of the makeable ego and the makeable world. My history, my country, my (for) parents, my gender, my skin colour, our climate are no good! These need to be changed or abolished. And this change deletes my guilt. I become innocent again, like a child. Paralysing guilt is transformed into social malleability and liberation.
Thus, guilt neurosis was born as a collective social phenomenon.
The guilt neurosis can be recognised, among other things, by the advocacy of the obvious, of that which no one is against. Social justice ? Who is against that? Black lives matter? Obvious, it seems to me. Sustainability, and proper and balanced handling of our natural environment? Of course. It seems harmless, even sympathetic, but beware: by stating the obvious, by supporting the self-evident, the reasonable is transformed into the absolute. And a position is taken in this sense: I am worthy, but the others are no good. I advocate the obvious in order to be able to talk about the other. Via the guilt projection onto the self, I start to virtue, and via my virtuous rationalisations, I then arrive at the other after all. And vices must be fought, fiercely if need be. Our (self)despair shows: that the time for talking to the opponent is over. Realism is old-fashioned. The absolute from the days of group consciousness returns and shows itself in the implacability towards the ignorant in the cancel culture. And the direction of the projection reveals what the source is; turn the projection around and you see the culprit: the modernist, exhausted discontent of the ‘self’.
Woke is a guilt neurosis, a neurotic feeling of guilt that is becoming more and more collective. A consequence of the fragmentation of self-overestimating modernity. It is the bundled meaninglessness, frustration and aggression, fear and shame in search of a destination. In search of meaning and fulfilment. This is, of course, a deeply human desire. However, due to its self-destructive nature, it cannot create but only destroys. Because of its collective nature – under the banner of engagement – it gains momentum. The storm of collected, uprooted and frustrated egos is capable of every conceivable horror but cannot recognise it. Truly, one imagines oneself at the top of the pyramid of consciousness and enlightenment and regards the ignorant, the unawakened with barely concealed contempt. And this contempt is a direct resonance of (unconscious) disgust at the self.
Modern man’s pretence of social malleability causes his view of guilt. Man who pretends to mould his life to his will, and in its wake the world, can fail. He makes himself God, and God he had declared dead just a few decades earlier with Nietzsche as his mouthpiece. The price we pay for this autonomy fiction is guilt. And all are guilty. The winners are guilty because they won. Because they discriminate, against others than the losers, because they pollute the world through their wealth and imagine themselves as morally superior. The losers are guilty because they lost, because they discriminate against others than the winners, because they pollute by their poverty and because they are spiteful.
We also see the aforementioned ambivalence of modernity in the view of guilt. On the one hand, we make our ego needs absolute by demanding every conceivable personal choice and believe we should be taken boundlessly seriously in every personal hurt. On the other hand, and we fail to see the contradiction, the ego is bursting with shame, such as flight shame and child shame, and we are ashamed of our privileges of various kinds.
Guilt, and responsibility
Guilt is a common, everyday word. But for our social diagnosis, we also need to look at “guilt” from the perspective of the zeitgeist. In group consciousness and for a child, guilt is a symptom of feeling that one no longer belongs to the group. The feeling of guilt serves to regain one’s innocence and thus belong again. In guilt, there is always a child consciousness that holds on to the need for innocence.
Therefore, guilt or innocence have virtually nothing to do with right and wrong; the worst atrocities are sometimes committed with a clear conscience. We feel guilty about a good deed if it deviates from what others expect of us. This time of war makes that crystal clear again, if only because of our own moral superiority over what is true and false, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
Responsibility is something else. For mature consciousness, it is a “response” from yourself to something unbalanced in your life. It is not moralistic, nor idealistic but “only” an appropriate response to the situation that rebalances and neutralises emotionally and materially. This makes taking responsibility not an onerous duty but a mature act that leads to fulfilment, happiness and to real freedom. And it is therefore completely distinct from guilt projection.
The difference between blame and responsibility is expressed very simply in the statements of engaged people: the white Dutch celebrity who claims on the talk show that “racism is deeply rooted in white people” creates guilt. If he were to say “Racism is deeply rooted in me” he takes responsibility. The male sociologist who says in the national daily that “masculinity is a big problem” points his finger. If he were to say “My masculinity is a big problem” he takes responsibility.
Taking responsibility leads to balance and peace. Projecting out guilt requires posturing that can then lead to superficial euphoria and fictitious virtue. But like an opiate, it always needs more posturing but will never lead to true peace of mind and contentment.
Children are innocent, always. And that is why they cannot bear responsibility, although sometimes they do so unconsciously for their impotent parents, but that damages them.
A person cannot remain innocent if he wants to become an adult, even if only in the sense of virginity, and accepts guilt by taking responsibility.
The ambivalent adult, the modern engaged person thinks that the antithesis of guilt is innocence, forgetting that this is so only in the child consciousness. In his/her guilt lurks a child consciousness that clings to the need for innocence. Moreover, it also explains the fascination with child activists.
For an adult, this is an illusion; the step to adulthood is the loss of innocence. Guilt disappears when one faces this fact and accepts the guilt. An adult then takes responsibility. Responsibility is not ideological, not dogmatic, is without pretence and is purely personal. Responsibility has no conception of the other, does not need convincing, does not feel morally superior. It is merely the “answer” to living in the here and now. Responsibility also means not constantly carrying the past with you and acting and living from there, but the opposite, to respond to life in the here and now. We can then see, for example, that it is not our ancestors who are flawed, at least no more or less than ourselves, but that it is our inability to deal with what happened at the time that explains our current dissatisfaction.
Ask any therapist where self-destructive feelings lead: to severe psychological problems, to ruined lives. The I that is not okay rejects the self, and everything naturally connected to it. Where the liberating movements of the 1960s and 1970s opened up what was closed, now, because of the intolerability of that openness, what is open is closed again. We call it woke, and assume it is a new emancipatory impulse. However, it is an attempt by the hapless ego to escape the fiction of self-blame. A regressive move by the shocked ego to do the right thing in the face of myriad choices and crushing responsibility. Woke is the neurotic projection of guilt onto the self. An introjection, because the guilt has nowhere else to go and only this seems to lead to reconciliation with unfathomable emptiness and agonising impotence.
With that, the phenomenon of woke is not the enlightenment it pretends to be but a confusion appearing as engagement about guilt and innocence, about the difference between child-like (un)guilt and adult responsibility with potentially dire consequences. It is a regressive movement because the absolute returns from group consciousness.
It is time to really wake up
 Group consciousness is the collective consciousness as it was dominant in pre-modern times (also in the West), i.e. approximately until the start of individualisation on a social scale in the 1960s. Just as the family is a safe haven for the child, the group was necessary for the adult for thousands of years, in all its forms (family, village, club, religion, nation), in order to belong and feel safe.
 Wilfried Nelles, Die Welt in der wir leben, p. 266 ff.