The infantilization of modern societies

by laughlyn (johan eddebo) | Apr 7, 2024

Children today are significantly less mature, it is often observed. Not only that, they seem both more preoccupied with childish things – less interested in the world of adults – and more inclined to consciously identify as “mere children.” This increasingly also holds true for adolescents and younger adults.

Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents—seeing that—have no desire to become adults. Few are able to imagine any genuine life coming from the vertical plane—tradition, religion, devotion.


Robert Bly, Sibling Society. 1997.

When I did work with a youth organization on the radical left about a decade ago, the 18-19-year-olds I encountered did not consider themselves “adults”. In this, they also exhibited a certain paradoxical deference to symbols and structures of societal authority, which bespoke a vacuum, a sort of need for a stabilizing locus of control that had been lost, even though they ostensibly considered themselves independent revolutionaries. I balked at this. You’re 19. Anarchist or not, you have no business using that word with any sort of supplicating reverence, I thought. You should be full of fervor and unabashed confidence, entirely certain that you’re the only real adults on the planet, trusting absolutely in your own unique, never-before-seen experiences and whatever conclusions you must draw from them.

That’s also how you rediscover and make your own what’s good in the remains of whatever order, society theory or orthodoxy you happen to reject.

But they all seemed to stubbornly hold on to a kind of immaturity as a part of their identity, as a role they were supposed to play until the tacitly imagined adult gatekeepers came out and told them something different. Even though they played at being dissidents in a struggle against the social order, they were clearly over-socialized individuals in a mass society, radicals on the surface who unironically sang Disney songs while living out a deeply rooted consumerist and even bourgeoisie mindset.

And a specific marker for this general immaturity, both in terms of identity and in capabilities, is how kids overall don’t read anymore. How they don’t accept the challenge of exploring the learning, the insights, and the depths of human experience offered us through literature. They read much fewer books in general, and much less adult material in particular. When I was in fourth grade, at around 10-11 years of age, all of my classmates read. And most of the children sought out adult novels. Fantasy. Science fiction. Horror. Romance novels. Even the “academically weakest” kids read young adult fiction that was challenging from their point of view. Now there’s almost nothing of the sort.

That dead horse has been beaten well into oblivion, sure, and the particular lament around reading goes at least all the way back to the 1950s and its comparatively quaint moral panic around comic books and their ostensibly destructive influence.

But the loss of reading is something of a canary in the coal mine. And the progressive infantilization of culture is no less real because certain minor signs could be identified early on, and what used to be subtle indications of the loss of independence, agency, maturity and capacities of reflective thinking now seems to be superseded by huge chunks of adult human competence simply and suddenly vanishing.

Over the last decades, observers in many different contexts have remarked how the population of technological societies is becoming increasingly immature, especially in the cognitive and cultural dimensions. An acceleration of this process is also attested to, which critics from Ivan Illich to Bernard Steigler in various ways connect to the emergence of mass society, urbanization and a loss of local agency, and a general adaptation to the technologies of control, propaganda and communication.

Arguably, we’re in many ways in the midst of a process of dehumanization that empties us of many of the basic abilities that separate us from animals. Robert Bly’s remark that modern mass society reinforces the Freudian id, while suppressing the higher and less robust structures of the human psyche, brings this point home in a very tangible sense. Considering the id a more primitive aspect of the person, connected with basic appetites, fear, sex and the gratification of desires, the gist of his argument is then that something like consumer society will inflame and reinforce the id-structures, especially in a context where we’ve attempted to throw out the rational, long-term control of a carefully cultivated superego intertwined with religion, perennial philosophy, and the holistic mode of being of traditional societies.

The death instinct. Narcissism. That the sexual instinct has a narcissistic character. The problem with western thought today is that nobody reads Marx. The problem with Marxists is that they don’t read anything else. The demand made by the body on the mind. Dracula and his antagonist, representative of the present, the complacent bourgeois philistine. The covid lockdowns were both a trial balloon for how far the government can take its control, and a way to crush the economy. To shrink it. The monsters of bourgeois society threaten to control the world. The Dracula of Bram Stoker is an entrepreneur, an investor, a rational calculating monster, a capitalist. Elon Musk is Dracula. But so is Rupert Murdoch. The idea of this dangerous split in society remains today. The regression builds on the erosion of skills. The working class is not taught how to add or subtract, cursive writing is lost and mostly the young are screen addicted. Getting the West addicted to screens is the 21st century version of England getting China addicted to opium. We are seeing the Opium Wars reenacted in media consolidation circa 2003. Keep children glued to screens.


John Steppling. “The Funhouse.” 2024.

At the personal level, this regression, this turn towards addiction, is also quite voluntary. It’s in one sense actively chosen by all of the smartphone-wielding parents, for both themselves and for their children. It’s not only the path of least resistance in many respects, but also provides some semblance of safety, predictability and sense of control in the face of a chaotic and unpredictable environment. It affords access to an attractive array of short-term gratification, as when my 35-year-old friend with a strange defiance remarked how he has rejected ambition and a family since he really only wants to stay home and play computer games for the rest of his life.

Infantilization also provides refuge from the stress of political and even existential responsibility, exemplified by how another (highly educated) friend expressed a profound relief at not having to face complex decisions in terms of what the world is really like and how it should be approached, since she could fall back on her trust in the experts and government.

This regressive process in many ways amounts to a comfortable, fawning submission under a dominant authority when our instincts tell us that danger’s afoot. It is a retreat behind the castle walls in a situation when, for most people, there seems to be little use in remaining beyond them.

But let’s take a step back before we get into this. What am I focusing on here? What might infantilization mean, and what do I and many others think is being lost through the cultural processes we try to describe in this way?

It’s been hinted at by the connections to Freudian psychology and the suppression of the more fragile and complex aspects of the psyche – but we could first try to say something about what maturity refers to. To characterize the opposite of the outcome of infantilization, in other words.

If we move beyond a simplistic notion of adulthood in terms of acquiring certain skills or of finding one’s place in the social hierarchy &c, it seems that maturity is something deeply and quintessentially personal. Since it’s the progressive coming forth of the person, of us becoming ourselves more fully, maturity is always mine and none other’s, and cannot be meaningfully quantified, at least not very far so. It regards the perfection of one’s capabilities, and the fuller and more complete emergence of that which are potential goods in us, possibly actualized aspects of our person. Maturity, then, while partly an issue of more or less quantifiable skills, also regards the emergence of capacities for complex experience and reflection, and since it involves the full emergence of ourselves as conscious subjects, in spite of being something deeply personal, maturity has a crucial relational aspect as well.

All of this, incidentally, is almost impossible to make sense of on a modern reductionist metaphysics whose conception of reality as exclusively material has room for no objectively real yet unrealized potentialities, for any inherent teleology, nor really even for consciousness as such.

But since there’s obviously a certain teleology, an introspectively evident goal-directedness clearly inherent in who you were as a five-year-old, that may or may not be more fully realized in the wisdom and lived experience of the adult that later emerges, a reductionist view of the human being is woefully inadequate. Not only that, the limited perspective it affords will tend to veil and diminsh from our view the very real possibilities of maturation, cultural, moral, spiritual and cognitive, which would otherwise serve as tangible goals towards which we could aspire to.

This is also an important initial observation to make. The contemporary processes of infantilization have their roots in an inadequate philsosophy. In a master narrative that interprets all data with regard to profitability, utility, exploitation and short-term gratification. An impoverished view of the world that both limits us and has us fixating on all the wrong things. Secularism, scientism and reductionist physicalism as auxiliaries to capitalism are in a very real sense technologies of domination, commodification and domestication – and one way to interpret this their function is to consider the connection to an immediate gratification of material desires, to the suppression of complex superego injunctions and the reinforcement of the id.

But let’s not disgress too far in this direction right now.

So infantilization implies the loss of mature agency, experience and relationship. It impoverishes the breadth and depth of what we can think, feel and perceive, and limits our ability to attain a more complex and complete personhood. It deprives us of kinds, modes and levels of subjective being-in-the-world that are only available to the integrated and mature psyche. This resembles how only the experienced listener can really access the complex nuances of meaning inherent in many works of classical music, or how someone with a vast knowledge of wine, or works of art, or of the subtle language of the forest, is privy to modes of subjective consciousness that’s actually inaccessible to the beginner.

The point is how there’s an irreducible quality of experience that’s only available to the connoisseur or the master, and which can’t really be communicated as such in simpler terms. This also holds true in the more general sense, such that the integrated psyche of a mature adult, bound together by complex experience, wisdom and resolved trauma, will actually be in possession of a more complete personhood than the unformed, immature or stunted individual. A quality often referred to as “wisdom”, which encompasses both knowledge in the simplistic sense, but also this intangible mode of experience that can almost be considered amounting to a different type of awareness.

This cannot be emphasized enough. A society without the mature adult, a society more or less devoid of wise, psychically integrated and seasoned individuals, will therefore in a very literal sense be blind.

But for the very same reason it will be much easier to govern.

And a second important observation to make is how at its roots, infantilization is closely connected to domestication, to the erection of suppressive structures for reining in and controlling a subject population. A useful comparison can be made in relation to how neotenous and juvenile traits and behaviours emerge in the adult individuals of domesticated animal populations. This is not only for reasons of intentional selection by humans, but also relates to epigenetic effects from such factors like the hormonal states of the mothers and the reduced environmental stressors which limit hormesis, i.e. the favourable adaptations to moderately-harmful environmental agents, and how this impacts neural development (see Wilkins, A. S., Wrangham, R. W., & Fitch, W. T. (2014).

Domestication, of course, is also something that civilization and complex human societies directs against their own subject populations. The purpose of domestication is to render the subjects docile, compliant, and to mold them towards exhibiting the patterns of behaviour that are considered useful by the dominant party. In that regard, the working classes have always been “tamed” by the ruling elite in almost the same sense as wild dogs or horses, and the mechanisms of domestication and control which operate towards creating docility and limiting independence, will in both cases produce aspects of immature behaviour, if not outright neoteny. The ruling classes also get tamed in this process themselves, of course, and were according to both Kaczynski and Ellul pointed out as the most highly socialized segments of any society, but that’s another discussion.

To this we might also add that behavioural modification of human beings towards compliance and reduced independence through various forms of conditioning will by default have to address the lower appetites and desires. In other words, you will have to entice and assuage the fears and wants of the primitive mammalian brain, which implies that a certain kind of regression, unique to the human species, is likely to manifest when we target ourselves for domestication.

But domestication isn’t complete until the rational, intellectual and volitional aspects of the person are along for the ride, and that particular process is really breaking new ground within the framework of technological mass society.

In One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse observes how a key part of the modern systems of behavioural control is the production of false or repressive needs in the individual, yet whose satisfaction are at the same time offered us through a semblance of free, rational choice, as the seeming fruits of our own, sovereign decisions.

Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual.


The criterion for free choice can never be an absolute one, but neither is it entirely relative. Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear—that is, if they sustain alienation.


And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls.


Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. 1964.

And here’s where we see the intersection of infantilization in the modern sense and progressive domestication through systems of repression and control. It’s precisely in the defanging and limitation of the rational, volitional and intellectual dimensions of the person, the transformation of choice into a selection process for prefabricated alternatives, that this historically novel kind of infantilization emerges, which now increasingly seems to characterize the adult population of modern industrial society.


“Orphans”. Thomas Benjamin Kennington, 1885

What’s important to note here is how this tendency of superficiality of the substitute reflection and choice is intertwined with mass culture and commodification. If the structural purpose is to reinforce behavioural patterns by targeting appetites and desires through short-term gratification, or to produce the intended outcomes via inciting fear, and if you also want to bundle this with a perception of choice and of rational engagement, you will need to rein in reason, and harness it for the rationalization of the satisfaction of the lower appetites.

The inevitable outcome is then how a harmless simulacrum or superficial air or atmosphere of higher-order thinking will come to be socially constructed in place of the real thing, and in our specific situation, mass-produced and commodified. In some paradoxical sense, then, the instrumental and superficial rationality of advanced industrial societies is a manifestation of its deep irrationality, of the pervasive processes of domestication and control predicated upon the harnessing of basic drives, fears and desires.

This immediate, automatic identification (which may have been characteristic of primitive forms of association) reappears in high industrial civilization; its new “immediacy,” however, is the product of a sophisticated, scientific management and organization. In this process, the “inner” dimension of the mind in which opposition to the status quo can take root is whittled down. The loss of this dimension, in which the power of negative thinking—the critical power of Reason—is at home, is the ideological counterpart to the very material process in which advanced industrial society silences and reconciles the opposition.


The impact of progress turns Reason into submission to the facts of life, and to the dynamic capability of producing more and bigger facts of the same sort of life. The efficiency of the system blunts the individuals’ recognition that it contains no facts which do not communicate the repressive power of the whole. If the individuals find themselves in the things which shape their life, they do so, not by giving, but by accepting the law of things—not the law of physics but the law of their society.


Marcuse, ibid.

And I think the key vehicle of this commodification of a subjugated reason, bundled together with a gratification of the lower appetites, is the emegence of the experience as product, the notion of the experience as a delimitable, singular, and marketable commodity. This construct of “experience goods”, pervasive throughout modern marketing, and especially in connection with brand development, seems to provide a distinct ontological foundation for nearly all contemporary integration propaganda and identity formation.

The recipe is actually quite brilliant.

The experience commodity brings to capitalism this tangible fusion of the lower appetites and a sort of mutilated remnant of the intellect, disconnected from a past, future and any relational rootedness, distilled in and through the now of the solpsistic act of consumption.

To state it more clearly, the creation and consumption of experience goods combines the satisfaction and conditioning of the more primitive aspects of the human being, with the limited and stultified participation of an instrumentalized reason. The phenomenon is well exemplified by the intended impact of something like a Nike ad where the symbolic summit of athletic achievement is reduced to a quantified sensation that the consumer ritualistically partakes in, where properly speeking a feeling rather than a particular product is being marketed. But what’s important to note is how this is an emotional experience that can only be comprehended on a rational foundation, limited as it may be, and which must be activated in relation to the intellect’s appreciation of the dominant myths and symbolic structures of the social order.

And there we have, to paraphrase Marcuse, the production and satsifaction of false and repressive needs in the individual, realized only in the exercise of a carefully tethered volition and intellect, which are falsely perceived as sovereign and free, not least through being raised up in the id’s adulation. It’s really the case that the experience as commodity and its full implicit meaning cannot be comprehended without this limited use of reason – but it’s kept limited precisely because the effects produced by the consumption of the experience commodity gratifies and reinforces our baser passions and desires. The experience commodity remains just an uprooted reflection of the complexity and robustness of the real thing it emulates and tries to invoke. A mere spectacle.

This in many ways amounts to a prison of the human mind. A most excellent trap for the rational human being, since the intellect and the will are harnessed to “freely” if not consciously reproduce the conditions of their own subjugation and alienation. And accordingly, we’re constantly expanding this prison ourselves in the course of our daily lives, through all of these little tethered choices conspiring to render more and more of our environment an artificial spectacle, bound together through the web of the experience commodity. It’s not only that the productive apparatus and the goods and services imposed upon us simply reproduce the social system and the relations of production through our adaptations and our learned dependence on them – we’re also dealing with an intimate colonization of our very subjectivity in how certain emotional and intellectual reactions are being fostered through our habits of consumption and the character of our lived environment.

In other words, as more and more of our environment becomes artificial, and mediated through technological structures and aesthetics specifically designed to indoctrinate and reproduce the relations of production and consumption, all of this is being held together and suffused by the experience commodity generated by the information, culture and propaganda industries. The end result is that more and more of our subjective and phenomenal environment comes to literally consist of the experience commodity – everything in our experience gets touched by the magic of commodification and reified ideology.

And in all this, alienation becomes something almost unthinkable. When we are throughly and actually alienated, and the reified, crystallized ideology manifested in our environment fuses with our own selves, the very meaning of alienation as predicated upon an opposition between the person and an actual external condition seems to come into question.

The above is a recent full-length album by a “vaporwave artist” – vaporwave was a non-artform emerging about 2011 originally intended to emphasize, deconstruct and poke fun at the emptiness of mass produced culture under late capitalism. This genre is now (ironically?) unreflectedly consumed as an entertainment commodity. The very picture of recuperation. A comment below appropriately reads:

The coolest thing about Windows96 [the artist] is that every album grows on me. Like, I’ll listen to an album the first time and think, well, it’s good, but it isn’t as good as his last one. And then, I’ll listen to it again. And again. And again. Until the next album comes out, and I’ll say, well, this isn’t as good as his last one. Every single time! It’s like, it’s not you, it’s me. And it truly is me.


I’M the one who has to change. I don’t know how he does it, but he does.

And the key to contemporary infantilization is precisely the cultural and structural predominance of the experience commodity. This decontextualized reduction of the complexly situated human experience, which normally encompasses an embodied rational-emotional subjective mode of being, is funnelled into this sensationalist remnant, the predominantly emotional “experience goods”, which are nonetheless held together by a glue of mutilated rational reflection and tethered volition.

One important measure of the outcome is the contemporary preoccupation with “feeling” in our mass media and popular discourse. The first question asked to celebrities, athletes or even politicians is always some variant of “how did it feel”. The UN Secretary-General comments on the last developments in the Gaza genocide by reporting on his emotional state. And Sanna Marin, Finland’s former prime minister, when asked why she decided to seek this particular position, replied it was because she “wanted to have an experience”.

This might sound completely insane and entirely irrational when examined at a distance, but the situation is not really that simple. It’s rather the case that people today tend to literally reason in this manner, with our thought-patterns anchored in the emotionally structured experience commodity and its diminished (but still present) form of rationality.

We could think of this as a kind of synthetic cognitive mode, akin to an operationalized form of the Marxian false consciousness, and the situation is a little bit like when you’re out picking strawberries for twelve hours, and how when you then get home, your brain keeps trying to find the fruits in the wallpaper.

So the contemporary reign of the feeling or the emotion in our common discourse cannot really considered some “mere emotionalism” or the simple predominance of feeling over thinking – it’s rather the experience commodity colonizing our subjectivity, and the commodity’s particular framing and construction of the emotion, infused with a simulacrum of rationality, becoming the predominant mode of human thought.

And the adaptation of our thinking to the experience commodity, this childish attachment to the immediacy of feeling, must also be connected to the rise of the “opinion” and its associated radical relativism. Opinions are now ontologically framed as something almost entirely separate from fact and argument, and particularly so in the self-understanding of the person who expresses them. The impotent opinion displaces critical reflection and the search for knowledge in the working class’ debased self-assessment of its intellectual abilities. Truth and facts then become the prerogative of the power structure, while all we mortals are capable of is mere opinion, something which in practice also generally is formed as a reflection and reproduction of the experience commodity, and both epistemically and in the social exchange amounts to little more than the momentary and inconsequential affections of the ordinary man.

Democracy is today thus almost explicitly approached as the rule of the elites and the experts, with the role of rational and deliberative popular self-governance reduced to our right to “express an opinion”, or to make our feelings heard, in the hope that the powers that be may grace us with sympathy for the needs and desires we happen to “experience”.

What is truth anyway? as Pilate once said.

Americans today love nothing more than ridiculing someone. Anyone. But its particularly satisfying if its an artist (abstract, of course) or a conspiracy theorist. Social media is a fun house mirror, a game to train psychopathy. Kafka was the voice of the death instinct, the immutable fusion of eros and aggression, but a fusion carried out in a suffocating inner space, a secret subjectivity.


It was not death as destruction, it was death as something ineffable and, as Calasso says, akin to the Vedic idea of *akshara* — A quality of the divine, yet it is not quite a personal divinity, but it does exhibit the tendency toward self concealment. The concealed God.


John Steppling. Ibid.

And all of this finally brings us back to the infantilization theme where we began. Infantilize. To keep in or reduce to an infantile state. To treat or regard as infantile or immature.

The onslaught of technological mass society undermines the integrity of the human being and her relational rootedness in countless ways. But one of the most insidious is this immediate colonization of our subjectivity that appears to have accelerated recently, and even taken on entirely new qualities.

This text has been a clumsy attempt at addressing a very complex subject that overlaps much with the equally difficult issues of alienation and false consciousness, and at that through a lens which perhaps isn’t the most appropriate one. Still, it seems to me that infantilization is close to the heart of the matter in almost every sense, since what’s ultimately at stake in this battle is the human being’s mature sovereignty over his or her own soul.

The only other option, in the final analysis, is the childish laughter of fascism.

The power of occultism, as of Fascism, to which it is connected by thought-patterns of the ilk of anti-semitism, is not only pathic. Rather it lies in the fact that in the lesser panaceas, as in superimposed pictures, consciousness famished for truth imagines it is grasping a dimly present knowledge diligently denied to it by official progress in all its forms. It is the knowledge that society, by virtually excluding the possibility of spontaneous change, is gravitating towards total catastrophe.


Occultists rightly feel drawn towards childishly monstrous scientific fantasies. The confusion they sow between their emanations and the isotopes of uranium is ultimate clarity. The mystical rays are modest anticipations of technical ones. Superstition is knowledge, because it sees together the ciphers of destruction scattered on the social surface; it is folly, because in all its death-wish it still clings to illusions: expecting from the transfigured shape of society misplaced in the skies an answer that only a study of real society can give.


Adorno, T. Minima Moralia.

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