Abraham Maslow: Democracy for the Self-Actualized Few
Abraham Maslow was an academic psychologist best known for his hierarchical theory of motivation, his description of "self-actualization," and his professional activism on behalf of humanistic psychology. Initially affiliated with Brooklyn College, Maslow
moved on to Brandeis University, where he spent eighteen years beginning in 1951. He lectured widely, served as a consultant to industry and government, and was a founder of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 1961 and the American Association for Humanistic Psychology in 1962.
Like Rogers, Maslow was deeply concerned with the relationship between psychology and politics. He was at least as explicit about his own political views (which were not the same as Rogers's) and wrestled constantly with the political implications of his theoretical positions, especially during the late 1960s, when he was seriously considering writing a book about "B-politics," a parallel to his "B-psychology" (B stood for "being"). A heart attack cut his life short in 1970 when he was only sixty-two, and Maslow never wrote the book. Consequently, his journals are often far more revealing of his politics than is the body of his published work. Begun in 1959, they were finally published nine years after his death.
During the 1950s, Maslow attempted to make liberal democratic values integral to a definition of mental health and psychological maturity. This was part of the general humanistic project to test the feasibility of democracy by wiring individual dignity, tolerance, freedom of choice, and similar virtues into the unfolding process of normal human development. In his explorations of self-actualizing people and their "peak experiences" during the late 1950s and 1960s, Maslow refined his understanding of the political arrangements most appropriate to normal, even exemplary, psychological functioning.
Maslow's motivational scheme consisted of a hierarchy with basic needs at the bottom and higher needs at the top. The choice of a hierarchy was not arbitrary. Maslow intended to arrange human needs from lowly to lofty, in “a series of increasing degrees of psychological health ." At the lowest level were physiological needs for food, clothing, and shelter. A bit farther up were safety needs, then needs for "belongingness" and love, and finally needs for esteem, achievement, and respect. Higher needs emerged progressively as lower needs were satisfied. Self-actualization, the inherent tendency in people to move toward becoming all they could potentially become, was located at the summit of the motivational heap. "Very good conditions are needed to make self-actualizing possible."
Self-actualization, in other words, rested self-consciously on the type of environment that the postwar United States allegedly offered: a society of abundance. The higher reaches of human psychological experi-
ence were possible precisely because, it was assumed, poverty and material deprivation had yielded to widespread prosperity in a middle-class society. Mental health, the product of a psychic economy of plenty, resulted from economic affluence. It could be bought and sold.
The most famous part of Maslow's study was his description of individuals who had climbed the motivational heights and actualized themselves. Maslow included historical figures as well as live subjects (Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, William James, and Eleanor Roosevelt were among them) and his inventory of their characteristics became a working definition of psychological well-being. Across the board, Maslow summarized, they were perceptive, self-accepting, spontaneous, autonomous, empathetic, and creative. They always made up their own minds, displaying independence and free will, and they reported mystical states that Maslow compared to orgasms and termed "peak experiences." Capable of feeling simultaneous power and powerlessness, ecstacy, awe, and heightened awareness, Maslow's peakers were acutely self-conscious and invested in their own psychological growth and development. They exemplified psychological integration and exhibited the fullest and most admirable potential of human identity.
For these very reasons, they were the perfect psychotherapeutic subjects. Insight and the desire for personal exploration, already in place, would grease the wheels of psychotherapy, making for less resistance and more success. That self-actualizing people should be intensively studied (and not only in psychotherapy) was one of Maslow's recommendations as well as a general tenet of humanistic psychology. "It becomes more and more clear that the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy." Only healthy people could be the source of a truly universal psychological knowledge with broad jurisdiction.
Because individual health and sickness were inseparable from societal health and sickness, self-actualization was a relative, dependent, and occasional goal, rather than something either present or lacking at all times in particular individuals. Maslow's vision of a good society was consequently one where social and economic arrangements expedited upward movement through the motivational hierarchy, facilitating both personal growth and the production of good citizenship. "It is quite true," he noted, "that man lives by bread alone—when there is no bread." "Democracy of Western sort is OK for rich & well-organized, educated society, & capitalism then can work fairly well. For
people with lower basic needs satisfied, higher needs emerge & we can talk about freedom for self-fulfillment, autonomy, encouragement of growth, humanitarianism, justice, democracy, etc. . . . There is now a hierarchy of societies paralleling the hierarchy of basic needs."
Maslow's "hierarchy of societies" placed authoritarianism on the bottom rung with laissez-faire capitalism higher and New Deal welfare statism highest of all. Although Maslow felt that self-actualizing people would thrive in almost any political environment, he tended to think that an antisystem of anarchic individualism made the most sense for them. His portrait of Eupsychia—a utopia inhabited by psychologically healthy people—was of a society committed to democracy but opposed to laws or constitutions, united in community but devoid of any traces of nationalist passion, abounding with permissiveness but lacking such problems as crime and unemployment.
Self-actualizing individuals may have been the quintessence of all that was best and most promising about human nature, but according to Maslow, they were still only a tiny minority of the population, even in the United States. Consequently, different political structures were required even within a single society. Maslow, forever coining new terms, distinguished between "jungle politics," suitable for the majority stuck on the lower end of the motivational ladder, and "specieshood politics," for the self-actualizing elite. He wrote bluntly in his journal that there should be "one [political system] for winners & one for losers."
Because Maslow was much more hard-boiled than Rogers in both his political views and his political assessments, he did not shy away from the conclusion that his hierarchical scheme might support a self-actualizing ruling class and lead to a two-tiered society, a sort of psychological apartheid. Because he accepted the inevitability of inequality as scientific fact, yet was unwilling to relinquish his commitment to liberal democracy, Maslow opted for institutional arrangements that would reward the "biological" superiority of a natural elite, rather than one founded on aristocratic, racial, or religious prejudice. I quote at some length from three separate journal entries.
I think there are innate superiors & inferiors. How could there not be? Everything varies from more to less. But, on the other hand: (1) We must make the world safe for superiors. The lower the culture & the lower people are the more likely they are to resent & hate the superiors & so to kill them off and drive them into hiding & camouflage. The more we educate the bulk of the population, the better it will be for the elite, e.g., less danger, more audience,
more disciples, protectors, financers, etc. Also the better the society & the institutional arrangements, the safer the world, the more synergic it is, the better it is for eliteniks. . . .
It seems clear to me (I said) that the regime of freedom and self-choice which is desirable for innovating-creative people (& which they desire) can be ruinous for noncreative people who are too authoritarian, too passive, too authority-ambivalent, too noncommitted, etc.—ruinous at least in the sense that this regime permits them to fail, since it assumes resources which are not there. . . . So I vote in favor of making life better for the ones I call "good students,"—those who are autonomous, committed, dedicated, hard-working, etc.—& letting the others go hang. . . .
Also, the humanistic psychology absolutely needs a doctrine of an elite, degrees of humanness, health & sickness, winners & losers, aggridants (whether by heredity or by learning), good specimens, good choosers, no equal votes, nonequal weighting. The taste or judgment of one superior can & should outweigh 1000 or a million blind ones.