Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch
January 1, 2011        

Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch  by Eric Miller.




            In 1994 Christopher Lasch died at the age of 61, an inestimable loss to all those interested in American politics and culture. The same year an even more calamitous loss occurred: the death - or at least a critical stage in the decline - of New Deal liberalism in America. The newly elected Republican Congress commenced, with ferocious energy and thoroughness, to dismantle or undermine the institutions that had produced, in the decades following World War II, the appearance of a permanent liberal ascendancy. From 1994 through 2008, the "wrecking crew" (Thomas Frank's apt phrase) and the army of corporate lobbyists it invited into government at all levels accomplished a work of sustained demolition, with feeble and intermittent opposition (and sometimes enthusiastic assistance) from Democrats.

            The dwindling of New Deal liberalism has reduced the immediacy of Lasch's critique, which was directed principally at the mid-20th-century liberal consensus. The liberal complacency against which Lasch continually warned has been replaced by liberal demoralization; the optimistic expectations of unlimited progress he deprecated have given way to anxieties about governmental stasis, economic collapse, and environmental catastrophe. No doubt most epochs seem like emergencies to their beleaguered contemporaries. But compared with the decades in which Lasch wrote, the ugliness of American politics in the early 21st century seems almost to justify a neglect of long-term perspectives and wide-ranging theories.

            Almost but of course not quite. We may not need Lasch's historical erudition or analytical subtlety to recognize the worst of the present dangers: the corruption of Congress by a flood of money from corporate and ultra-rich donors; the colossal squandering of resources on "defense" spending in all its varieties; the fanatical obstructionism of the Republican Party. But even if our current plutocracy is not succeeded by a restored New Deal liberalism, it will be succeeded by something. The degradation of American politics will eventually bottom out, and reconstruction will begin. Americans then will need to understand the weaknesses of the society that preceded the debacle, and of its prevailing self-justifications. To these weaknesses Lasch was an incomparable guide. Eric Miller's fine intellectual biography will help keep Lasch's thought available as a resource against that (hopefully not too distant) day.

            About Lasch's life, Miller is discreet. There is little about Lasch's wife and children, though a great deal about his warm lifelong relationship with his parents. Robert and Zora Lasch were Midwestern populists and religious skeptics, he a journalist, she a philosopher turned social worker. Their steady encouragement was important to their son, and Miller quotes frequently from their sensible, affectionate, often witty letters. The only other personal relationship that features much in the book is with Eugene Genovese, the noted Marxist historian, who brought Lasch to the University of Rochester with ambitious talk about department-building and founding new journals, but who proved impossible to work with. John Updike, Lasch's first-year roommate at Harvard, also puts in a couple of appearances. Miller's extensive and skillful use of Lasch's letters conveys an appealing impression of him as a generous, cordial, unguarded correspondent. Still, the biography's focus is overwhelmingly on Lasch's writings and the critical reaction to them.

            Lasch's books (except for his first, The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution, 1962, based on his dissertation) fall into three broad, overlapping categories: essays on American politics and history, with particular attention to the role of intellectuals (The New Radicalism in America, 1965; The Agony of the American Left, 1969; The World of Nations, 1973; The Revolt of the Elites, 1995; and the posthumously assembled Women and the Common Life, 1997); psychoanalytically grounded studies of American culture and social thought (Haven in a Heartless World, 1977; The Culture of Narcissism, 1979; The Minimal Self, 1984); and prophecy (The True and Only Heaven, 1991).

            Lasch's most enduring contributions, in all these phases, had to do with the relationship between modernity and democracy. But his more topical writings also deserve to be remembered. Though he frequently and fiercely criticized the American left, there were few differences among Lasch and his New Left comrades about Vietnam, the Cold War, and foreign policy generally. He unambiguously rejected American exceptionalism, that apparently unkillable delusion among both liberals and conservatives that idealism and "good intentions" have - in reality, and not merely in rhetoric - featured prominently in America foreign policy. His judgment of "Wilsonian idealism" - regularly praised or deplored by contemporary commentators, though largely fictitious - was unsparing:


The trouble with Wilson was not that he went off crusading for high ideals and ignored American self-interest. The trouble was that, like most statesmen, he found it so easy unconsciously to translate the self-interest of his own community into the language of high idealism. The most striking fact about the twentieth-century dream of world peace and order, of which Wilson was to become the prophet, was not that it was utopian but that it was a one-sided Utopia, a world made safe not for democracy but for ourselves. ...From the point of view of three-fourths of the world, Wilson's famous quarrel with Clemenceau, which appeared so momentous to the new "realists" (as to all Western scholars), was less important than their shared determination to keep that same three-fourths in its place.



            The Vietnam War appeared to Lasch an illegitimate and undemocratic exercise of executive power, in which "pluralism and countervailing power were nonexistent" and "the public was without effective representation of any kind" - a clear refutation of the "genial theory" of the "consensus school." The "main lines of American foreign policy have remained consistent": above all, "opposition to social revolution" and the "gradual displacement of the old European empires and maintenance of these empires under American auspices or client regimes." Liberal intellectuals have obligingly "supplied a 'tragic' view of the world, stressing the inconclusiveness of diplomacy and the impossibility of quick solutions, that made more palatable the assumption of commitments the consequences of which were impossible to predict."

            The irresponsibility of intellectuals was a leitmotif of Lasch's writings. It was their contributions to the evolution of work, education, and the family that occupied him most, but he also had something important to say about intellectuals and Leviathan in such essays as "The New Republic and the War" (ie, World War I), "The Cultural Cold War," "'Realism' as a Critique of American Diplomacy," and "The Foreign Policy Elite and the War in Vietnam." Intellectuals' repeated seduction into "associating themselves with the war-making and propaganda machinery in the hope of influencing it" betrayed a loss of faith in democracy, indeed in intellect itself, a "haunting suspicion that history belongs to men of action and that men of ideas are powerless in a world that has no use for philosophy." Time after time in the 20th century, he admonished, "it has been shown that the dream of influencing the war machine is a delusion. Instead the war machine corrupts the intellectuals."

            It was not these moral failings that interested Lasch, however, so much as the changing role of intellectuals, and in particular their increasing function as agents of social control in corporate management and in the medical, welfare, and educational bureaucracies. In the new industrial state, intellectuals were indispensable not merely for rationalizing wars but also for supplying technological innovation, directing production, guiding consumer demand, performing psychological maintenance, and socializing the young. The evolution of this "new paternalism" - and more generally, the transformation of knowledge from a means of emancipation to a means of domination - was Lasch's constant theme, especially in the first half of his career.

            The democratic revolution of the 18th and early 19th centuries in the United States successively undermined monarchy, established religion, landed elites, and Southern slavery. The protagonists of this movement were artisans, small farmers, and independent entrepreneurs, in alliance with an emerging propertied class of bankers and industrialists. But their goals differed: the former, according to Lasch, sought "the freedom to control the terms of their work, not merely to sell their labor at ruinous prices" in the new, large-scale enterprises, while the latter merely wanted "to free property from its feudal and mercantile restrictions." After the Civil War, faced with "unrest at home and the spectacle of the Paris Commune abroad," the propertied classes drew back. At first they offered top-down reforms, meant to "professionalize the civil service, break the power of the urban machine, and put the 'best men' into office." But these measures could not satisfy credit-starved farmers or harshly exploited factory workers. Agrarian radicalism and labor militancy drove far-sighted capitalists and liberal reformers toward a more thorough rationalization of the industrial system:


They brought forward their own version of the "cooperative commonwealth" in the name of progressivism: universal education, welfare capitalism, scientific management of industry and government. The New Deal completed what progressivism had begun, solidifying the foundations of the welfare state and adding much of the superstructure as well. In industry, scientific management gave way to the school of human relations, which tried to substitute cooperation for authoritarian control. But this cooperation rested on management's monopoly of technology and the reduction of work to routines imperfectly understood by the worker and controlled by the capitalist. Similarly the expansion of welfare services presupposed the reduction of the citizen to a consumer of expertise.



            The mechanisms of this far-reaching rationalization and its effects on the characters and intimate relations of those subject to it are analyzed in the books of Lasch's middle period. At the center of his analysis is the loss of autonomy entailed by mass production and the division of labor. "Before the Civil War," he points out, "it was generally agreed, across a broad spectrum of political opinion, that democracy had no future in a nation of hirelings." Self-reliance was obviously the foundation of such civic virtues as courage, honesty, ingenuity, and self-sacrifice, and no one imagined that any democracy worthy of the name could flourish without such virtues. But the factory system and the new corporate form of business organization rendered the very notion of self-reliance obsolete. The obvious, political consequences - the eclipse of popular sovereignty - were bad enough. It was the less obvious, psychosocial consequences, however, that Lasch attempted to describe with his theory of a "culture of narcissism."

            The popular understanding of "narcissism" - excessive self-love, à la Donald Trump or Bernard-Henri Lévy - has little to do with the psychoanalytic conception. Freudian narcissism denotes not overweening self-assertion but desperate self-protection. How, according to psychoanalytic theory, does a secure self come to be? The human infant, born with a brain uniquely undeveloped in comparison with those of other newborn animals, at first can recognize no distinctions or limits. Gradually, the inevitable occurrence of frustration forces on it a recognition of its separateness from, and dependence on, the rest of the world. It reacts against the source of this frustration - its parents - with a rage which, because its parents are also its sole source of nurture, it cannot comprehend or tolerate. So it represses this intolerable rage -  which, like all repressed emotion, returns in the form of distorted and outsized fantasies, in this case of idealized or demonized parents.

            Fantasies are a kind of psychic specter, which must be vanquished or maturity will be inhibited - they will, after a fashion, imprison the self. In premodern times, what vanquished the child's fantasies - gradually wore them down to manageable dimensions - was everyday contact of a certain sort with its parents. The regular experience of love and discipline from the same source; the gradual lessening of the mother's attention, compensated by "transitional objects" that allowed the child a modest but growing sense of mastery over its environment; and perhaps most important, daily observation of the father at work, which conveyed a realistic sense of both his potency and limitations, freeing the child from hatred and terror of this early rival for its mother's affections - all these made it possible to scale down, and finally lay to rest, the child's potentially imprisoning primal fantasies.

            In industrial society, by contrast, with the father stripped of his skills and removed from the home, and with various agencies of socialization supplanting parental authority from an early age, there are fewer opportunities for daily familiarity to reduce the young child's confusing and threatening notions about authority to proper, human scale. The result is a sea change in the characteristic personality type, both normal and neurotic, of our time: from the self-denying, self-controlled petty bourgeois, prone to outbursts of hysteria or obsession but capable of discipline and commitment, to a more fluid, ingratiating, manipulative type, perpetually in quest of fulfillment and self-expression, well adapted to bureaucratic authority and consumer culture.


In its pathological form, narcissism originates as a defense against feelings of helpless dependency in early life, which it tries to counter with "blind optimism" and grandiose illusions of personal self-sufficiency. Since modern society prolongs the experience of dependence into adult life, it encourages milder forms of narcissism in people who might otherwise come to terms with the inescapable limits on their personal freedom and power - limits inherent in the human condition - by developing competence as workers and parents. But at the same time that our society makes it more and more difficult to find satisfaction in love and work, it surrounds the individual with manufactured fantasies of total gratification. The new paternalism preaches not self-denial but self-fulfillment. It sides with the narcissistic impulses and discourages their modification by the pleasure of becoming self-reliant, even in a limited domain, which under favorable conditions accompanies maturity. While it encourages grandiose dreams of omnipotence, moreover, the new paternalism undermines more modest fantasies, erodes the capacity to suspend disbelief, and thus makes less and less accessible the harmless substitute gratifications, notably art and play, that help to mitigate the sense of powerlessness and the fear of dependence that otherwise express themselves in narcissistic traits.



            So say Lasch and Freud, at any rate. In recent decades, the prestige of psychoanalytic theory has sharply declined. In view of this, how plausible is Lasch's "culture of narcissism"? Those of us unfamiliar with the clinical literature and the theoretical debates must, to some extent, reserve judgment. Lasch's account may sometimes sound like a "just-so" story. But sometimes "just-so" stories are true. The internal coherence, complex articulation, and comprehensive scope of Lasch's analyses, across many books and several decades, are more than impressive; they are astonishing, even epic. Whatever one's final verdict, there is, I would say, more to be learned from grappling with Lasch's efforts than with those of any other contemporary social critic.

            Lasch's career was, in one sense, a running argument with the Enlightenment and its modern representatives: "progressive" intellectuals. It was - let there be no mistake - a family quarrel. The authoritarian conservatism of, say, T.S. Eliot or Russell Kirk, who rejected the Enlightenment root and branch, held no appeal for Lasch. No theological dogma or aristocratic hierarchy ever won from him an expression of sympathy, or even a wistful glance. He was a skeptic and a democrat, first and last. Nevertheless, he set his face against what most of the Enlightenment's heirs have called, usually in reverential tones, Progress. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics was a monumental challenge to modern orthodoxy and a mighty summa of a neglected tradition: "producerist" populism.

From Condorcet through Marx and the Fabian socialists to contemporary liberals and social democrats, a certain form of social evolution has been understood as inevitable and desirable. Mass production, economies of scale, and large, centrally controlled organizations have superseded handicraft production, small proprietorship, and face-to-face self-government. Geographical, professional, and interpersonal mobility are the rule; local identification, neighborhood stability, and close-knit, long-term group relationships among kin, family, or friends are the exception. Marriage, child-rearing, and personal relations are no longer governed by instinct or traditional lore but by expert knowledge deployed in schools, courts, welfare agencies, and psychotherapists' offices. Economic output is to be maximized; consumption democratized; work specialized; education standardized; and the whole society mediated impersonally and efficiently by the market and administered transparently and accountably by the state.

            This is not a wholly unattractive vision; and in any case, isn't it simply the way things must be? Of course we often chafe under these arrangements, but surely our discontents are over matters of detail - fairness, accountability, and so on - or the inevitable stresses and frictions of change? Given the size and scale of our society, our ever-growing needs and appetites, the sheer, unstoppable momentum of advancing technology, and the tendency of everything to become more complex and connected, what other form of life is possible to us? Even if industrialism is as productive of individual and social pathology as Lasch claims, is there any alternative?

            In answer to this apparently irrefutable self-justification, Lasch called up in True and Only Heaven a long succession of prophets, some forgotten, others well-known but newly reinterpreted as opponents of the allegedly pre-ordained course of modernity: Jonathan Edwards, Adam Smith, Paine, Cobbett, Emerson, Orestes Brownson, Carlyle, Morris, Henry George, Sorel, Mumford, Niebuhr, King, and the members of what Lasch regarded as the most hopeful and radical movement in American history, 19th-century Populism. Some of these thinkers preached virtue, some deplored ugliness, some sought after justice. But most of them were agreed, according to Lasch, in "defense of endangered handicrafts (including the craft of farming); opposition to the new class of public creditors and to the whole machinery of modern finance; opposition to wage labor" and support "of the principle, inherited from earlier political traditions, liberal as well as republican, that property ownership and the personal independence it confers are absolutely essential preconditions of citizenship." They mistrusted large accumulations of wealth and insisted, along with Ruskin, that "the reward of labor is not what one gets by it but what one becomes by it." They affirmed human and natural limits and were deeply skeptical of the modern religion of unlimited economic and personal growth.

            It sounds hopeless, of course, if indeed it even sounds intelligible to many in our time. Perhaps Lasch will seem merely quaint some day, as the Sermon on the Mount would have seemed to Augustus, or William Morris's News from Nowhere to Margaret Thatcher. Eric Miller's intelligent and sympathetic biography is honest enough to settle for wistfulness in assessing Lasch's legacy. Miller succeeds, at any rate, in persuading us to join him in saluting Lasch's "unyielding attempt to force us to revisit our confident conclusions about our world and seize our one moment of responsibility for it."




George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For?