October 1, 1991
One of the bittersweet pleasures of American intellectual life over the last twenty-five years has been to follow the curious evolution of Christopher Lasch, our premier social critic. It is not, however, a widely shared pleasure. A lot of people have stopped paying attention. Lasch’s comradely hectoring has long since alienated most of the left, while the right has never overcome its (well-founded) suspicion that wherever he ended up, he would remain radically anti-capitalist. His antipathy to liberalism, in both its “compassionate” and “pragmatic” versions, to feminism and other varieties of cultural radicalism, and even to the new “communitarianism,” has been unflagging. By now, virtually every political and cultural tendency in recent American history has smarted under Lasch’s criticism. But the breadth of his displeasure has, to some extent, blunted its sting-- he is often written off as merely a scold or a grouch. “What does Christopher Lasch want?”, a question once plaintively or exasperatedly posed by thousands of nonetheless admiring readers, ha been heard less frequently-- in my experience, at least-- over the last half decade or so.
Those who have persevered now have their reward. The True and Only Heaven is a landmark work of social and cultural criticism. The scope and complexity of its central argument, and the ingenuity with which a vast range of evidence is brought to bear, are phenomenal. Even if you remain, as I do, unconvinced-- “unconverted” might be more appropriate-- you cannot be unimpressed.
In the first phase of his career, Lasch published three collections of historical and political essays: The New Radicalism in America (1965), The Agony of the American Left (1969), and The World of Nations (1973). Though clearly a product of the New Left, with its attractive but unstable blend of Marxist analysis and anti-authoritarian impulse, Lasch differed from other radical historians in at least two respects. Most of them studied American foreign policy, labor movements, or slavery, while Lasch’s interests were mainly cultural and psychological. And perhaps as a consequence, he had a far more ambivalent attitude toward authority. Militant, unqualified opposition may have been an adequate response to imperialism, economic exploitation, and slavery; but mass culture and the rise of “the intellectual as a social type” (the subtitle of The New Radicalism in America) inevitably evoked more complicated judgments and diagnoses.
By the mid-l970s, the civil rights, antiwar, and anti-poverty movements within the New Left had largely faded from public view, leaving behind only the counterculture. The personal became virtually the whole of the political. Lasch always had reservations about the New Left’s cultural politics; and as the carnival turned into a riot, his disenchantment deepened.
But instead of turning rightward, like many other disaffected intellectuals, he turned inward. Under the influence of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and the rest of the Frankfurt School, who combined a philosophically sophisticated Marxism with psychoanalytic theory, Lasch produced three studies of “the socialization of reproduction”: Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The Minimal Self (1984). He tried to show that the pressures of competition and commodification had gradually transformed education, medicine, psychotherapy, social work, entertainment, journalism, and even scholarship, into agencies for the formation of a specific character type, one which fit the requirements of 20th-century capitalism. This character type-- “the narcissistic personality of our time”-- is morally pliant, emotionally and aesthetically voracious, ingratiating but wary of intimate, permanent relationships, in contrast with its 19th-century “bourgeois” predecessor, which was rigid, self-righteous, austere. To simplify: the bourgeois character suited a culture of production; the narcissistic character, a culture of consumption. These two types, in more general form, as the “ethos of production” and the “ethos of consumption,” are the twin suns around which Lasch’s conceptual system revolves in The True and Only Heaven.
The ur-text of modernity, by Lasch’s account, is Adam Smith’s argument in The Wealth of Nations that the creation and satisfaction of new needs in the course of economic development is a process potentially without limit. From this claim flows nearly every belief and value at the core of the modern outlook: the primacy of efficiency and economic growth, the perception of nature as resource, the ethical priority of individual welfare, the definition of the good life in terms of leisure and abundance, and most important, the image of history as continuous moral and material progress, made possible by the spread of scientific and social rationality. This is the worldview of the Enlightenment, Marx’s no less than Adam Smith’s. The quarrel between democratic socialism and liberal capitalism is not over whether these values should be realized, but how.
Adam Smith’s originality lay in grasping the implications of what was then a relatively new development: the division of labor. So persuasively did he argue its advantages that it came to be considered, along with secularization, the sovereignty of the individual, and the scientific revolution, one of the essential preconditions of modernity, a cornerstone in the ideology of progress. True, the costs of progress were soon enough evident. Secularization frequently threatened psychic stability and morale. Enhanced individual freedom meant diminished social cohesion and solidarity. The predominance of science diverted imaginative energies from non-quantifiable forms of inquiry and expression, and made possible a purely instrumental view of the natural (eventually also the human) world. But for all these ills the defenders of modernity had a plausible diagnosis: growing pains. As Kant remarked on the French Revolution: one learns to exercise freedom by exercising it, and in no other way.
The disadvantages of the division of labor (about which Smith was candid, even eloquent, unlike subsequent champions of capitalism) were famously summed up by Marx in a single word: alienation. The division of labor meant the concentration of production, and this meant the loss of economic autonomy, of the freedom to work where one lived, to choose one’s own materials, style, rhythms, and perhaps most important, one’s customers, if any. Wage labor meant forced mobility, the decay of local communities and loyalties, monotonous and unhealthy work, and economic vulnerability. All of which Marx (like all subsequent champions of socialism) accepted as a necessary evil. Through the sheer immensity of its wealth-creating powers, mass production would at length bring into being a population capable of rationalizing and humanizing it. As with other historic innovations, so too with this one: through many trials, tears, and woes, Progress will lead us home.
I hope this description of the modern weltanschauung sounds banal. It’s meant to. However inchoately, the ideology of progress is as obvious to most of us as the shape of the earth. Whether radical, liberal, or conservative, we would no more think of denying the necessity of industrialism or the eventual triumph of reason and science over traditional dogma and local prejudice than the desirability of a rising standard of living or the right of everyone to plan her own life. Wars, depressions, and other typical 20th-century disasters may retard progress but cannot ultimately reverse it. Even what is to count, fundamentally, as progress-- a fuller, freer (i.e., more mobile and abundant, leisured and cultivated) life for ever more individuals-- is generally agreed on.
To all this, the spirit of the age, Lasch replies (like Thomas Carlyle, one of the heroes of The True and Only Heaven, “No, in thunder!” Modernity is a mistake. Progressive ideology in all its aspects -- optimism, individualism, rationalism, humanitarianism, internationalism, efficiency, growth, centralization-- rests on a misunderstanding of history and human nature. Of course no single book, however ambitious, could fully argue such a claim. So diffuse and pervasive is the progressive outlook that merely to articulate it is an achievement. But Lasch’s critique cuts deep.
It is, first of all, historical. According to progressivism, capitalist development created an increasingly educated, militant, unified working class, whose challenge to wage labor and private ownership of the economy became more and more radical. The Russian Revolution derailed (or fulfilled, depending on one’s viewpoint) this socialist dynamic, which is currently in historical limbo. But whatever radical opposition to capitalism there’s been has come from industrial workers, together with a few professionals and intellectuals, and has been oriented to the future-- to the fulfillment of capitalism’s stunted potential by new, non-capitalist institutions.
Wrong, Lasch counters. The working class and its socialist or social democratic leaders have fought hard, but never over fundamentals. The only challenge to capitalism per se-- to wage labor, the factory system, and the concentration of credit-- came from movements of independent small producers threatened with extinction: farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and others usually disparaged by Marxists as politically naive or reactionary “populists.” Socialist struggles were about wages and working hours. Only the “reactionary” populists, rooted in a vanishing way of life, raised questions about self-management, the effect of work on the worker, or the control of investment.
The historical scholarship of the last two decades supports this claim of Lasch’s, along with another: that the political philosophy of the American Revolution was not Lockean liberalism or “possessive individualism,” i.e., an ideological precursor of liberal capitalism, but an older, “republican” philosophy of civic virtue. The Revolution was less about property rights than about citizenship. And once again, it was small producers and proprietors who were the main bearers of this ideology and the source of the most effective and radical opposition.
These historical reinterpretations lead on toward a deeper moral and psychological revisionism. The ideology of progress assumes that maturation involves moving away from narrow and particular affections toward abstract and universal ones. Family, ethnic, regional, and religious loyalties are something we supposed to grow out of, or at least subsume in a wider sympathy. When such loyalties are exclusive, we call them “chauvinistic” or “fanatical”; and we usually assume that the more intense one of these particularistic commitments is, the more likely it is to be dangerously exclusive.
For Lasch, this devaluation of the local and traditional is a radical error. It is not enlightenment but memory, not breadth of sympathy but intensity of identification, that makes for inner strength. In The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self, Lasch argued that to achieve secure selfhood an infant must experience love and discipline from the same source; otherwise the child, and eventually the adult, will feel for everyone in authority the same combination of rage and terror that the infant feels for whoever it depends on. And more: he showed that it was the advent of wage labor and mass production, which removed the father’s work from the child’s experience, thereby drastically altering his role in the child’s psychic development, that has produced the characteristic neurosis of our time, along with a culture of consumption.
In The True and Only Heaven he takes a further step. What does it mean, he asks, that the democratic movement of the 18th century and the anti-capitalist movement of the 19th, like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, were wrought not by the “universal class” of Marxist theory, not by enlightened rationalists liberated from local attachments and traditional beliefs, but by people very much committed to such attachments and beliefs, people loyal to the “archaic” creeds, crafts, and communities under attack from the forces of “progress”? Not, that is, by people looking toward the future, but by people looking toward the past?
It means, he answers, that “the victory of the Enlightenment,” with its unwillingness to accept limits on human aspiration and its promise that in a rational society the traditional virtues would be obsolete, “has almost eradicated the capacity for ardor, devotion, and joyous action.” On moral even more than environmental grounds, “the basic premise of progressive thought-- the assumption that economic abundance comes before everything else, which leads unavoidably to an acceptance of centralized production and administration as the only way to achieve it--needs to be rejected.” Not rational optimism but supra-rational hope is true wisdom and succor:
"Popular initiative ... has been declining for some time-- in part because the democratization of consumption is an insufficiently demanding ideal, which fails to call up the moral energy necessary to sustain popular movements in the face of adversity. The history of popular movements ... shows that only arduous, even a tragic, understanding of life can justify the sacrifices imposed on those who seek to challenge the status quo.
The idea of progress alone, we are told, can move men and women to sacrifice immediate pleasures to some larger purpose. On the contrary, progressive ideology weakens the spirit of sacrifice. ... Hope does not demand a belief in progress. . . . Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. It rests on confidence not so much in the future as in the past. It derives from early memories in which the experience of order and contentment was so intense that subsequent disillusionments cannot dislodge it. Such experience leaves as its residue the unshakable conviction, not that the past was better than the present, but that trust is never completely misplaced, even though it is never completely justified either..."
These passages probably make clear why it has proved so easy to dismiss, even ridicule, The True and Only Heaven Scorn for an errant people, its rulers, and its false gods, and stern insistence on a complete change of heart and mind-- this is the tone of a prophet. In fact, Lasch does declare his allegiance (or seems to) to “the tradition of Judeo—Christian prophecy.” The “heart” of that tradition is belief in
"the power and majesty of the sovereign creator of life; the inescapability of evil in the form of natural limits on human freedom; the sinfulness of man’s rebellion against those limits; the moral value of work, which at once signifies man’s submission to necessity and enables him to transcend it."
This “tragic understanding of life” Lasch also finds, more or less secularized, in the thought of Carlyle, Emerson, Orestes Brownson, William James, Georges Sorel, and Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as in 18th-century republicanism, 19th-century populism, and the southern black culture from which Martin Luther King emerged. Lasch’s reconstruction of this sensibility, the “ethos of the small producer,” proceeds in step with, and as a kind of counterpoint to, his critique of progressivism and its ethos of abundance. As intellectual and social history, it is a tour de force.
Lasch is of course less interested in historiographical virtuosity than in civic virtue. He wants his critique and reconstruction to contribute to the transformation -- he would probably say “redemption” or “conversion”-- of our culture. But toward what? Populism “has generated very little in the way of an economic or political theory,” he admits. “Its advocates call for small-scale production and political decentralization, but they do not explain how these objectives can be achieved in a modern economy.”
Neither has anyone else, so populists should not be faulted too harshly. There is, though, another, more plausible objection to Lasch’s radical anti-modernism. At one point he attributes William James’s chronic ambivalence about modernity to “the difficulty of carrying on an essentially theological controversy without its theological context.” But surely this is Lasch’s difficulty, too? Or does he propose to resurrect “the theological context”-- the existence of God, the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul? The Covenant and the Incarnation? Must we believe in order to be saved? If so, then we are lost. We cannot believe the unbelievable, even to salvage our culture.
Critics have complained, and readers will demur, over the length of The True and Only Heaven. But the change to small-scale production and political decentralization is so drastic, so urgent, and so unlikely that the case needs to be made decisively. It is hard to imagine a more rigorous and comprehensive argument than Lasch has made in the last two and a half decades. Even so, he will probably remain, like other critic—prophets, a voice crying in the wilderness.
Throughout history, the pain of everyday life has elicited a promise of happiness: first, of Paradise; then of Progress. To have shown that Paradise is a myth, that supernatural religion is the opium of the people, is the enduring legacy of the Enlightenment. To show that Progress is a myth, that historical optimism is the opium of the intellectuals, is the aim of the Enlightenment’s critics. About which a chronically ambivalent modern reviewer might say that these critics, from Carlyle and Emerson to James to Niebuhr to Lasch, have in a sense carried on the Enlightenment’s own work: opposing the displacement of our hopes and the distancing of our fulfillment, forcing humanity’s attention back to the limits and glories of our un-ideal world, reminding us that the kingdom of heaven is within.