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Is America's 'Money Complex' Bankrupting Its Character? Interview With Psychoanalyst Tom Singer, M.D.

"As a psychologist viewing the country as a patient, I think we've become over-identified with the accomplishments of the 'cultural ego.'"
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Part of an ongoing series on analyzing the American psyche

In my interview with San Francisco Jungian psychoanalyst Thomas Singer, M.D., editor of Spring Journal Books' series on Analytical Psychology & Contemporary Culture and The Cultural Complex, he addresses America's "money complex": Its corrosive effects on our national character, and the nugget of real gold it conceals. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

What is a "cultural complex"?

On a cultural level, a complex is a cluster of strong emotions, historical memories and behaviors that is repetitive in a group of people over a period of time. The hallmark of a cultural complex is that it's irrational and inflammatory; it seizes the culture in a disruptive way that defies reason.

In a recent lecture you listed seven American cultural complexes. Do you want to choose one and explain its influence?

The one that causes me the most distress is our "money complex." Whether politics, sports, or health care, it's taken over every aspect of our lives.

Recently the Supreme Court was faced with deciding whether a gene can be patented and made into a commodity. Fortunately they ruled against that, but it's an example of how even the code of life itself has been in danger of being bought and sold.

It makes me wonder if our money complex conflicts with our ideals as a democracy: Is this who we really are?

It's hard to know whether America's obsession with money is consistent with its historical experience over time, or whether it represents a deviation. But somewhere along the way there was a transition from a rural, agrarian society, to an industrial society, to the post-industrial consumerist society of today. That's different from how we began: I don't think consumerism is in the Second, Third, or Fourth Amendment!

One of the things I learned recently about George Washington was his aim to live by the virtue of "disinterestness."* He certainly wasn't perfect, but he aspired to be impartial, motivated more by service and obligation than his own material or professional gain. We don't seem to even come close to that these days.

I think that's true -- self-interest is a much more highly valued principle today, as opposed to disinterest. Self-interest is also tied into narcissism.

Can you say more about how narcissism is tied into a money complex?

A certain amount of positive self-worth is essential to one's well-being. But if a person lacks a healthy sense of self-regard, money and the things money can buy is one way to alleviate an inner sense of impoverishment. Money has also become equated with status, as people start to believe that who they are is defined by the access money can buy.

If America were a client on your couch, how would you diagnose the source of these symptoms of narcissism and obsession with money and consumerism?

SHistorically, the American identity has been strong: Our vast Western lands opened horizons for expansion; the Industrial Revolution opened horizons for technological development; we survived both the Civil War and the Great Depression; and we conquered our enemies in two World Wars. These feats generated a sense of resilience and self-confidence in our collective self-image.

But as a psychologist viewing the country as a patient, I think we've become over-identified with the accomplishments of the "cultural ego." What we don't identify with is what gets tossed into the unconscious -- our sense of emotional and spiritual impoverishment, disconnection from nature, our origins in other countries, and our vulnerability and failures.

So if I were treating the country on the couch, I'd want to ask about these repressed parts of the American self. The problem arises when America's vulnerabilities enter the political arena in the guise of poverty, health care, immigration or other debates, because it divides the country and provokes a defensive response: Go somewhere else if you feel that way!

Has money become a source of security and emotional fulfillment, to the exclusion of other things?

On a cultural level, money does all sorts of good things, such as increasing trade and communication. But the part around money we're examining is how our culture as a whole gets over-identified with it, and where money has become a substitute for things such as personal relationships, or appreciation for nature, education or art.

Is there something meaningful at the core of our money complex that has become distorted over time?

We could speculate that at the core of America's money complex is the idea that a sense of well-being is a birthright for all Americans, and that we're entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: That's democracy. It came out of a glorious vision of a better life for many people, which then got corrupted by people eager to make as much money as they could as quickly as they could.

So what would a life of "well-being" look like to you?

We can all think of examples of people we admire, not because of their money, but because of the qualities they embody: Generosity of spirit or concern for others; the capacity to enjoy life; or for their creativity or knowledge. I also think of older people who've lived well and who've learned from their experiences, losses and failures, as well as accomplishments.

The example of Zorba the Greek comes to mind.

I wrote my college thesis on Zorba the Greek! What I discovered through this character was the sense of exuberance that can come through a life fully lived. And that's well-being: It's a spirit of life that's not solely identified with money.

And then there's the character from F. Scott Fitzgerald's American classic, The Great Gatsby, now currently a movie.

Gatsby is a complex character, as he's all about the striving of the individual to the highest levels of wealth and achievement -- while at the same time he knows it's an empty game. His ironic character is the perfect "carrier" of America's infatuation with money, allowing us to see it.

So does Gatsby personify a necessary skepticism toward America's obsession with money?

A little skepticism or irony is a step toward consciousness. A cultural complex is everywhere -- and so to both be of it and not fully of it is difficult to achieve.

Is becoming conscious of America's money complex one of our "psychological tasks" as a citizen?

For me psychological awareness of our cultural complexes is part of being a good citizen: To both identify the complexes that are driving the collective psyche, and then to address them in a thoughtful way, rather than being blindly possessed by them.

When we address money psychologically it's a double task, because it's got both a personal and cultural layer. So it's a matter of citizens examining the value of money in their upbringing -- whether they were born with too much money or not enough -- as well as becoming aware of what the culture is inundating them with, and then differentiating their own individual relationship to money. That's no easy task.

This is the first in a seven-part series on America's cultural complexes with Tom Singer.
* Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, by Gordon S. Wood.