All in all, Wachtel's work remains an excellent profile of middle-class psychology in America, its habits, expectations and frustrations. The book was quite popular when first published, and though many changes have since occurred, the central theme remains as relevant now as then. Much of the book's inspiration comes from counter-cultural themes of the sixties, and thus represents not only a critique of corporate America but of the materialist ethic as well. One key theme predominates: bigger isn't necessarily better. On the contrary, our national obsession with growth has, despite the sloganeering, produced a deeply unhappy society of atomized individuals. Most of the points here are fairly familiar ones concentrating on the spiritual limitations of material accumulation made more severe by the use of competition as the driving force behind obsessive growth and accumulation. The author, a psychologist, has experienced a number of dysfunctional patients whose difficulties, as he shows, are traceable to these societal phenomena.
In the context of professional psychology, Wachtel presents a number of critical assessments of other schools of psychology, including a number of insights into modern social behavior. A significant element of his own orientation lies in connecting the psychological with the social, and the health of the individual with that of the group, a move which rejects a key assumption of the modern age, viz. methodological individualism. Accordingly, an important part of the book lies in a citique of individualism in its many guises and philosophical forms. Behind this critique appears to lie a deep regard for the humanistic impulse which he views as inherently social in nature. To the detriment of that impulse, however, a society of unhappy, alienated people is being produced by a national ethos of mindless self-absorbtion, obsessive growth, and an ethic of competition. Hence remedies for personal ills must tackle the societal thereby taking on a scope far exceeding that of the single individual. Accordingly, Wachtel mounts a non-technical critique of capitalism as an ordering process and its need to reproduce these alienating forms of social behavior. In the process, he seeks to shatter myths surrounding the marketplace as producing the best of all possible worlds. What he appears to be plumping for--implicitly at least--is a genuinely socialist society without the explicit use of that vexed term.
He writes fair-mindedly and effectively in assessing soviet socialism, democratic socialism, and capitalism, while his chief economic inspiration appears to derive from liberals like J. K. Galbreath and Lester Thurow. Though the book is currently out of print, I think it remains a classic statement of what American consumerism has actually wrought.