A wave of social engagement is sweeping through the West. There is an umbrella term for this engagement, although it is not entirely clear whether this is a self-coined slogan of the activists or a derogatory predicate of the critics: woke, referring to a higher state of clarity and insight. Despite this common denominator, this engagement has many different faces: climate, race, gender, social justice, and migration. And all these different currents have their own following, their own language and symbolism, and their own indignation.
The engagement also exudes a strong sense of urgency and certain enlightened absolutism. As street and Twitter activism, it is sometimes downright aggressive; more parliamentary versions advocate states of emergency and are willing to set aside democratic processes and fundamental rights. There is also great determination and certain presumptuousness to this engagement. The time of contrary opinions and dissident feelings is over. Opponents are characterised as mentally ill people with a phobia.
In progressive circles, these movements resonate strongly, perhaps because they appeal to nostalgic feelings of distinction and emancipation. Perhaps they revive the social engagement of the 1970s? After all that neo-liberal vulgarity, there finally seems to be room again for inspiration and there is hope for the world again. If we hurry.
Critics seem to be on the defensive. The most common objection is that this engagement flaunts its virtue rather ostentatiously. But what is wrong with being virtuous? What is wrong with correctness, political correctness in this case? Besides, the loudest critics are often representatives of populist groups and they do not really play a role in social discourse. Yet woke seems to have a few sharp edges with its cancel culture of speakers, academics, books, rituals, and old heroes.
How should we judge wokeness? As a blessing coming down on the West, or as a curse? Are wokies our social vanguard, the trendsetters of a new way of looking at how people relate to each other and to nature? And will the conservative and unconscious majority automatically follow suit, as happened with the emancipation movements of the 1970s? Will the populist movements evaporate because we can warm ourselves by the fire of an inspiring, new and collective challenge? Or is wokeness 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 that we breathe, the water we swim in, in short, the consciousness we live in. The dimension of our life that we hardly notice because of its naturalness and ubiquity.
Modern consciousness is ambivalent
When individual liberation broke through collectively in the 1960s, after artists, thinkers and scientists showed us the way in the centuries before, a gigantic reservoir of unleashed individual creativity, energy and ambition was released. This enabled us to achieve decades of great social progress and to fully enjoy the newly acquired freedoms. The vitality and ambition splashed from the television screen. We broke the chains of hierarchy. Church and country became the object of ridicule. We were going to live our own lives, no longer those of dad, mum or the priest, and we were going to improve the world. Modern life, the result of individual development, received an incredible boost in the 60s and 70s. It was of an impressive reality and power of expression in lifestyle, gastronomy, fashion, art and science.
Was it sustainable, this liberation euphoria? Speaking of which, what about our freedom, one of the pillars of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948? Are they an expression of a successful worldview or of a flight forward, a sign of despair? And poverty, has it been eradicated to some extent? Perhaps not quite yet in Burundi and Mozambique, but perhaps in the Netherlands? More than half a million Dutch households live in poverty. If money is not the answer, have we in any case become happier together? The DSM-5, a handbook of officially approved mental disorders, has more than doubled in size. Burnout is public health disease number 1. And although there have never been so many psychologists, there are still many more clients. On a waiting list. Our houses are spotless thanks to 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 development 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 were still not happy, and the world was not perfect, on the contrary.
We are up against a major 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 turns out more and more to be a burden) it is happy when it gets external affirmation, and unhappy when it doesn’t get any likes. Ambivalence as the powerless, impotent impasse of the self.
Ego and neurosis
In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud diagnosed that the personality consists of 3 parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the primitive and instinctive part of our brain and the superego is our conscience, our moral awareness. The ego is the realistic, rational part of our personality that mediates between the instinctive desires of the id and the moral nomenclature of the superego.
In everyday speech, this is still the view of the ego, the rational dimension of our psyche, but we also have become a little wiser since Freud. Eckhart Tolle, for example, the smiling guru, describes this ego dimension in his book “The Power of Now” where he introduced the concept of the “pain-body”. The pain-body is that aspect of the ego where all the unprocessed traumas slumber. The pain-body feeds on everything that goes on in our mind, our judgments, and our negative thoughts. When we identify with these thoughts, we think of ourselves as stupid, ugly, and unsuccessful. Because we keep paying attention to that infernal grinding machine in our heads, this negative self-image is constantly reinforced. Thus, the pain-body stays alive and can even grow.
Of course, the ego is not the only dimension of our humanity, nor is it unique to modernity. But the I am and I want have become dominant in modernity. The ego identifies with thoughts and with appearances, and it is not intrinsically okay but only conditionally, namely only if it is affirmed. It is a mental construct, constantly comparing itself with others and dependent on external validation. And although all spiritual traditions downplay the ego’s fumbling, for the Western man it is addictive and persistent conditioning.
Thousands, probably millions of people torment themselves with the identification with the ego. 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 whatever kind, are the mental pandemic of modernity. And the chronology of neurosis runs absolutely parallel to that of modernity.
The Jungian psychologist and philosopher Wolfgang Giegerich has interesting reflections on our neuroses. According to Giegerich, we can recognise neurosis by its absolute character. Neurosis arose when the typical questions of modern consciousness, of the ego: “Who should I be?” or “How should the world be?” were considered and interpreted from an absolute point of view. Although modernity seemed to be the age of freedom and relativity, 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 get rid of suddenly enters again through the back door, without anyone noticing, namely the absolute of group consciousness. In neurosis, reality is viewed only with the criteria of absolutes.
Do you recognise them, these kinds of statements, in the world around you? The “absolutely unacceptable! “, the “absolutely necessary! ” Although modernity brought us individual freedom, the awakened activist puts nothing in perspective. There is no compromise between reason, measure, and rationality. It is the pure acting-out of the absolute. With the absolute, the neurosis shows that it resists concrete experiences or illuminating nuances with a compelling conviction and is immune to rational insights.
According to Giegerich, the neurotic psyche knows in principle what is true and what is not, but does not draw the necessary consequences from this. For example, he knows very well that because his mother did not give him the love he desired for 25 years, she will not suddenly give him that long-awaited love today or tomorrow. But the neurotic ego-soul insists on cherishing that expectation. The neurotic psyche is irrational but strongly adheres to its irrationality: to prevent micro-aggressions one becomes an aggressor, in the fight against discrimination one now discriminates against others than before, and bodies that are claimed to be social constructs require physical interventions to change them and to get rid of fossil fuels one burns trees.
The totem pole of the neurotic psyche is the idea of the malleability of society; it is our most fundamental modernity synthesis. But real life teaches us that (social) malleability is an illusion. And if we lose that illusion, we are helplessly lost. In general, one can say that neurosis is the refusal to enter the real world. The world of limited malleability, of good and evil, of fate, and intrinsic suffering as part of human existence.
Where should it go, this collective meaninglessness, the latent unrest and aggression of the ego? The brewing dissatisfaction is becoming unbearable for more and more people. Our boundless freedom has a downside; it has led to the pretence of the malleability of life. Now that we ourselves are responsible for our emotions, for our relationships, for our careers, and for our entire lives, it is also our ‘own’ fault if things go wrong, and that will rub off on us.
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 could drag original sin with me to death if need be, in order to at least be liberated in the Kingdom of God. There was also an alternative, I could project my guilt onto another group, and if that collective projected guilt was big enough we would call 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” stands alone and lonely. It can no longer bear its guilt, no longer endure it, and seeks a way out.
And there is. When 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 project “my” guilt onto myself. On a dimension of the self that I think I can change. Because I think I have control over the self. Finally, I have my freedom back! My dissatisfaction, and my unconscious feelings of guilt I reject, transform and project onto a concrete object of the makeable ego and the makeable world. My history, my country, my (ancestral) parents, my gender, my skin colour, our climate are no good! They must be changed or abolished. And this change removes my guilt. I become innocent again. Innocent as a child. The paralysing guilt is transformed into malleability and liberation.
This is how guilt neurosis was born.
The guilt neurosis can often be recognised by the advocacy of the obvious, of that which nobody is against. Social justice? Who is against that? Black lives matter? It seems obvious to me. Sustainability, and a good and balanced relationship with our natural environment? Of course. It seems harmless, even sympathetic, but beware: by stating the obvious, by endorsing the self-evident, a position is taken: I am all right, but the others are no good. I argue the obvious in order to be able to talk about the others. By means of the guilt projection on the self, I become virtuous, and by means of my virtuous rationalisations, I end up with the other in a roundabout way. And vices must be fought, if necessary fiercely. Our (self)despair shows: the time of talking to the opponent is over. Realism is old-fashioned. The absolute from the time of group consciousness is returning. And the direction of the projection reveals its source; turn the projection around and you see the culprit: the modernist, exhausted dissatisfaction of the ‘self’.
Woke is an increasingly collectivised guilt neurosis, a neurotic sense of guilt, a consequence of the fragmentation of self-aggrandising modernity. It is the bundled senselessness, frustration and aggression, fear and shame that is looking for a destination. Looking for meaning and fulfillment. This is, of course, a deeply human longing. But because of its self-destructive nature, it cannot create but only destroy. Because of its collective character, self-destruction – under the motto of engagement – gains momentum. The storm of collected, uprooted and frustrated egos is capable of all imaginable horrors but cannot perceive them. After all, they imagine themselves on top of the pyramid of consciousness and enlightenment and regard the ignorant with narrow-minded contempt. It actually is a regressive movement, because the absolute returns from group consciousness.
Modern man’s pretentious view of the malleability of life causes his view of guilt. Man, who has the pretension to control his life and, in its wake, the world, can fail. He makes himself God and God he had just declared dead a few decades earlier with Nietzsche as his mouthpiece. The price we pay for this autonomy fiction is guilt. The winners are guilty because they have won. Because they discriminate, against others than the losers, because they pollute the world with their wealth and imagine themselves to be morally superior. The losers are guilty because they lost, because they discriminate against others than the winners, because they pollute through their poverty and because they are resentful.
The ambivalence of modernity is also reflected in our view of guilt. On the one hand, we make our ego-needs absolute by claiming every conceivable personal choice and think we need to be taken seriously in every personal hurt. On the other hand, and we do not 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 an everyday word. But for our societal diagnosis, we must also look at “guilt” from the point of view of the spirit of the times. For a child, guilt is the feeling that one no longer belongs to the group. The feeling of guilt serves to regain one’s innocence and thus one’s sense of belonging. In the feeling of guilt, there is always a childlike consciousness that holds on to the need for innocence.
Therefore, guilt or innocence have virtually nothing to do with good and evil; 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 clear again, if only because of our own moral superiority over what is true and false, over who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
For the mature consciousness, responsibility is a “response” from yourself to something unbalanced in your life. It is not moralistic, not idealistic but “just” an appropriate response to the situation that restores the balance, neutralises it emotionally and materially. Thus, taking responsibility is not a burdensome duty but a mature act that leads to fulfillment, happiness and to true freedom. And it differs therefore completely from the projection of guilt.
The difference between guilt and responsibility is expressed very simply in the statements of “engaged” people: the white Dutch celebrity who claims in a talk show that “racism is stuck in white people” creates guilt. If he were to say “racism is stuck in me“, he takes responsibility. The male sociologist who says in a national newspaper 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 guilt can create euphoria, which like with an opiate addiction always needs more presumption, but it will never lead to peace of mind and contentment.
Children are innocent, always. And that is why they cannot bear responsibility, although they sometimes unconsciously do so for their powerless parents, but that damages them.
An adult human being cannot remain innocent, even if only in the sense of virginity, and accepts guilt by taking responsibility.
The modern engaged, ambivalent adult thinks that the antithesis of guilt is innocence, forgetting that this is only so in the child consciousness. In his/her guilt there is always a childlike consciousness that clings to the need for innocence . It also explains his 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, is not dogmatic, is without pretence, and is purely personal. Responsibility has no conception of the other, does not need convincing, and does not feel morally superior. It is merely the “response” to living in the here and now. Responsibility also means not carrying the past with you all the time and acting and living from it, but the opposite, to respond to life in the here and now. We can then see that it is not our ancestors who are not virtuous, at least not more or less than ourselves, but that it is our inability to contain the shadow sides of our history.
Ask any therapist where self-destructive feelings lead: to severe psychological problems, to ruined lives. The “I” that is not OK rejects the self and everything that is naturally connected to it. Where the liberating movements of the 60s and 70s opened up what was closed, now, because of the unbearability of that openness, what is open is closed again. We call it woke, and assume it is a new emancipatory impulse. It is, however, an attempt by the unhappy ego to escape the fiction of its own guilt. It is a regressive movement of the shocked ego to do the right thing in the face of countless choices and crushing responsibility. Woke is the neurotic projection of guilt onto the self, onto one’s own being, because only that seems to lead to reconciliation with unfathomable emptiness and agonising powerlessness.
Hence, the woke phenomenon is not the enlightenment it pretends to be, but an engagement-like confusion about guilt and innocence, about the difference between childish guilt and innocence, and adult responsibility.
It is time to 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.