Reflections on Lasch

‘‘After the political turmoil, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that the only thing that matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with your feelings, eating health foods, taking lessons in ballet, or belly-dancing, or immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to “relate,” overcoming the “fear of pleasure.” Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past. Indeed Americans seem to wish to forget not only the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon Presidency, but their entire collective past, even in the antiseptic form in which it was celebrated during the Bicentennial. To live for the moment is the prevailing passion – to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing a sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching to the future. It is the waning of the sense of historical time – in particular, the eroding of any strong concern for posterity – that distinguishes the spiritual crisis of the seventies from earlier outbreaks of Millenarian Religion [1].’’

This poignant excerpt from Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism accurately diagnosed the Boomer generation as it was metastasizing within America. Nearly every book that was written by Lasch has a quotable aphorism on each page. It is a great delight that such a gifted polemicist had existed during the socially and cultural turbulent second part of the 20th Century.

What made Lasch so memorable was a trenchant critique of American society that transcended the liberal paradigm. Lasch had lambasted the New Left’s decadence and spectacle-based politics while undercutting the basis for Buckley’s Fusionist Conservatism. Having finished reading his three most famous books (The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics and The Revolt of the Elites), I wish to write a summation of these writings for this sphere of individuals. First, I tackle his magnum opus, then shifting attention to the two subsequently mentioned books.

To put The Culture of Narcissism and the subsequent works in their proper context, one must examine the exact times they were published. The first book in question emerged in 1979. The malaise of the waning Carter presidency was apparent in the world situation. America and the Soviet Union were coming to terms with their continued respective existence, while the American economy was still reeling from stagflation.

Culturally speaking, the U.S. had barely recovered from Nixon’s revanchism and the deluded radicalism of the New Left. A scant few years later, the most familiar faces of contemporary politics showed up: Reagan, Thatcher, the Clintons, and the Bushes; who helped the solidification of neoliberalism. It was in this period Lasch published his more introspective books on the foundations of American life – The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics and The Revolt of the Elites: The Betrayal of Democracy. With this in mind, one can derive the recent development of the Kwa world that surrounds us.

The Culture of Narcissism begins with a quick rundown of American decline during the Cold War and overall instability in every sphere of life. Lasch goes on to uncover the root causes of many of these problems as narcissistic pathology. However, he approaches this diagnosis from a Freudian psychoanalytic perspective, so he’s not referring to selfishness, but a failure to distinguish the self from external objects. It’s the logical endpoint of Descartes where the whole of external existence is denied, leaving an atomized self solipsistically existing in a chaotic world. From here one would conjure up a synthesis of Nietzsche’s “Last Man” and CS Lewis’ “Men Without Chests,” shambling miscreants that are devoid of any higher values. Christopher Lasch helps articulate this archetype by expanding on the new need for therapy and the constant war of all against all in modern capitalism.

‘‘The ethic of self-preservation and psychic survival is rooted, then, not merely in objective conditions of economic warfare, rising rates of crime, and social chaos, but in the subjective experience of emptiness and isolation. It reflects the conviction—as much a projection of inner anxieties as a perception of the way things are—that envy and exploitation dominate even the most intimate relations. The cult of personal relations, which becomes increasingly intense as the hope of political solutions recedes, conceals a thoroughgoing disenchantment with personal relations, just as the cult of sensuality implies a repudiation of sensuality in all but its most primitive forms. The ideology of personal growth, superficially optimistic about the power of positive thinking, radiates pessimism. It is the worldview of the resigned [2].’’                

With this pathology laid out, Lasch goes on his crusade to point out its pervasiveness in American life, and how this debasement of man creates the problems unique to our age. This root is present everywhere, from the media to politics to culture, as shown by the grand theater politics of the mid 20th century that was facilitated by the propaganda apparatus which was promoting this hedonistic individualism via advertising.

Lasch conceptualizes this situation as the Freudian Id hijacking a society previously headed by the Superego. This disintegration of authority into cultural anarchism supplants past norms and mores. It cuts off the historical rudder maintaining a course in alignment with the past. Instead, the waves of modernity determine the path of the boat. The response to these compounding manias was the expansion of the ‘Managerial-Therapeutic State’:

‘‘The ideology of modern management draws on the same body of therapeutic theory and practice that informs progressive education and progressive childrearing [3].’’

This new class of professionals lead to a reaction from what is considered the Right these days –  Buckleyite Fusionists and Neo-Conservative columnists – who propped up the Reagan Revolution. Christopher Lasch points out the irony of how many of these members of the Intelligensia were members of the new class they railed against, epitomized by Charles Krauthammer, a Leftoid Psychologist who pivoted to being a doddering Neocon. These were typical managerial cowards who never endangered their own lives but had no problems sending others to their death for their own personal glory. These individuals spent his life developing arguments why others should fight and die in pointless wars like Trotsky or Hitchens.

In his later book, The True and Only Heaven Lasch does a great job by critiquing the contemporary conservative position of attempting to defend the current status of society as entirely disconnected to the traditional values they supposedly defend.

‘‘[Carlyle] objected to the tyranny of custom because it discouraged men and women from looking beneath the surface of things, not because it discouraged them from experimentation. Clothing, in his expansive treatment of the image, covered what was usually meant by civilization and progress. It referred among other things to the arts and sciences, to all the products of human ingenuity by means of which men and women seek to make themselves comfortable and secure but also to divert themselves, to beguile the time, and to satisfy the taste not just for conveniences but for beauty [4].’’

Fusionists had transformed the epistemic value of tradition from truth to “the right answer”, which in the age of liberalism meant the most economically efficient answer. These arguments were popularized most by Friedrich Hayek, in the form of the idea of the “market as spontaneous order”, even though these family structures had existed prior to the manifestation of the capitalism and the groundwork for capitalism could only be achieved through aristocratic governments bringing about coinage and trade in the first place. Ultimately, this ignorance has created a self-defeating cycle that leads the muddled idea of conservatism towards failure.

On the inverse, Lasch decoded the main impulses within the libertine Left that emerged with the complete stagnation of Soviet countries and the pacification of trade unions within the West. Movements like the beat poets encouraged self-indulgence and the need to turn inward for inner peace and fulfillment.

By focusing on these goals, the New Left had absorbed the writings of Freud, Fromm, and Adorno, advocating the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs, eastern spiritualism and the rejection of authority. Little did these people know but they were only replicating America’s new empire of consumption and commodity culture, where it was encouraged to embrace hedonism, spectacle, and preoccupation with self. These symptoms were part of a broader phenomenon that had been present in previous figures such as Oscar Wilde and Marquis de Sade.

‘‘He [Sade] perceived, more clearly than the feminists, that all freedoms under capitalism come in the end to the same thing, the universal obligation to enjoy and be enjoyed.  In the same breath, and without violating his own logic, Sade demanded for women the right “fully to satisfy all their desires” and “all parts of their bodies” and categorically stated that “all women must submit to our pleasure.”  Pure individualism thus issued in the most radical repudiation of individuality. “All men, all women resemble each other,” according to Sade; and to those of his countrymen who would become republicans he adds the ominous warning: “Do not think you can make good republicans so long as you isolate in their families the children who should belong to the republic alone.”  The bourgeois defense of privacy culminates–not just in Sade’s thought but in the history to come, so accurately foreshadowed in the very excess, madness, and infantilism of his ideas–in the most thoroughgoing attack on privacy; the glorification of the individual, in his annihilation [5].’’

Contempt is the sentiment Lasch expresses towards the New Left that had emerged during this chaotic and fluid period of time. His critique arises from how it embodied the narcissistic pathology and its unproductive theatrics absent a political vision.

Fundamentally, it would aid capital’s need to “liberate women” by abolishing the familial social unit so as to induct women into a new economic serfdom. Christopher Lasch later goes onto view them as pseudo-radicals in Revolt of the Elites, similar to Donoso Cortes’ classification of bourgeoisie as the “discussing class,” always seeking to evade action. Currently, these pseudo-radicals stick to examinations of language rather than pursuing an actual political agenda only acting towards the degradation of society. Overall, this attitude is an attitude shared by rightists like Patrick Buchanan:

‘‘Global capitalism and Marxism share a belief that it is far better to have women in the marketplace than in the home. The old Marxists: Marx, Engels and the others, wanted to bring down the traditional family, and move women out of the home and into the marketplace, to make them independent of the family. The global capitalists want the same thing. Women who live at home are not consuming or producing enough, they think. Global capitalism seeks to make everyone an employee, everyone a worker. There is a tremendous premium on bringing into the marketplace talented and capable women workers who are more reliable in many cases so that they can boost productivity and consume more goods [6].’’

However, Lasch did realize this was still an incomplete picture. The nuclear family unit was only a stage of alienation brought on by the toxic forces of modernity. The early socialists viewed it as a stage below intentional communities/modes of being. When those reactionary bonds were obliterated, the class organization would come to fruition. Lasch takes the inverse position of wanting to revitalize those organic groupings that are neither part of the state or market like religion.

The culmination of liberalism and watered down reformist economic rhetoric created these contrived culture wars. Both inorganic movements shuttered any serious political discussion in the US. They blotted out the real history of America, preventing actual dissent. Roosevelt led the downward spiral of any worker-centric left, while the Mont Pelerin Society aided the elevation of the Austrian School which created the many myths of the free market respectively.

Thus, when we see working-class whites unfurl the Gadsden Flag and cry ‘freedom!’ they are indulging in a historical worldview which was given to them by the MPS, which scarcely exists in American history. Lasch explores this aspect of America’s political economy in Revolt of the Elites, rightfully pointing out that America only became a nation of wage laborers as the 19th century ended. This destroys liberal historiography because the original free farmers and craftsmen needed less “gubmint” because of production and capital’s small scale. The relevant economic facts were not labor market conditions but the prices of commodities linked to the producers.

While it’s absolutely true that there is no way to return to the Producerist past, we can still remember ourselves truthfully, which was: a nation of free farmers and craftsmen that were eventually shepherded into the factories by market forces With this is in mind we can gain a better understanding of our own past and its more ethical ethos subsequently replaced by empty nostalgia. This broader phenomenon of ignorance is best captured with a quote from The True and Only Heaven:

‘‘This kind of thinking reduces premodern or “traditional” societies to flatness and immobility. The impression of a premodern past almost entirely devoid of incident is strengthened by a sociological conception of history that seeks the typical, the average, and the normal as opposed to the idiosyncratic and exceptional [7].’’

In these books, Christopher Lasch goes on to deconstruct the roots of the “narcissist problem” which were the deluded optimism in the concept of “progress.” They break down the growth of the enlightenment and charts the reaction to it as its impact slowly increased through the intelligentsia and protestant social gospel.

He covers similar ground in his inspection of more contemporaneous issues in Revolt of the Elites, particularly the deterioration of Western democracy. The moneyed, cultural, and cognitive Western elite abandoned their responsibility to support culture, education, and the maintenance of infrastructure as they traversed the modern age. Lasch sums this up by inverting Jose Ortega y Gasset’s thesis, showing how the previous rise of the masses has to lead to the widespread sublimation of egoism which has affected the rulers of society.

Christopher Lasch links the beginning of “progress” as a philosophical concept to men of Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Henry George’s vintage. They viewed material abundance and man’s desire as the path towards the celestial city of the future. The response emerged from social critics like Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson who argued in favor of man’s martial virtues and denial of one’s baser cravings. As time went on the field of sociology came into being with Marx squaring the circle of classical econ, and Max Weber articulating the ideas of social authority, community, and society. These ideas were internalized by more and more in concert with reactionary and revolutionary forces materializing as crises mounted from capitalism.

Early America populist movements organized to combat industrialism and east coast finance, centered on figures like William Jennings Bryan. They represented the last stand of the artisan prior to the full-on industrial swing the US took during and after the World Wars. After the erasure of this self-sufficient ethos came the massive social upheaval of the sixties and seventies with the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, sexual decadence, the newly entrenched corporate and civic elite, the atomization of the nuclear family, the narcissistic turn inwards of the self because of consumerism and capitalist conceptions of raising living standards abrupt halt with the limitation of the Earth’s resources. Thus progressive ideology throughout the Twentieth Century emerges as the mirror image of nostalgia, as the idealization of the future and an inability to ask useful questions about the direction of society is hurtling towards.

Within these texts Lasch lauds the work of Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr himself advocated for a healthy level of particularism as a form of communitarianism in order to resist government encroachment or solipsistic individualism. These two public intellectuals and activists managed to spread messages of self-respect, breaking from the narrow view of enlightenment and positivism in keeping with the pragmatist tradition of William James. This synthesized the strands of progress and the misgivings of progress via pleasure and intemperance:

‘‘Martin Luther King was a liberal in his social gospel theology but a populist in his insistence that black people had to take responsibility for their lives and his praise of petty bourgeois virtues: hard work, sobriety, self improvement [8].’’

Lasch does recognize the fact that King had pivoted towards stumping for democratic socialist reforms and attempting to bring together a poor people’s coalition for this advocacy. Upon his assassination, the black community descended into ineffectual radicalism and professional race hustling of the Sharpton variety. Lasch laments the abrupt death of King since it stifled the emergence of a competent populist movement in the second half of the 20th century.

A common theme among Lasch’s work is the defense of the middle class as a necessity to preserve stability, whether the landed gentry or broader American classification.

‘‘Not only do the new social movements – feminism, gay rights, welfare rights, agitation against discrimination – having nothing in common, but their only coherent demand aims at inclusion in the dominant structure rather than revolutionary transformation of social relations. It is not just the masses that have lost interest in revolution; their political instincts are demonstrably more conservative than those of their self appointed spokesmen and would-be liberators. It is the working and lower-middle classes after all that favor limits on abortion, cling to the two-parent family as a source of stability in a turbulent world, resist experiments with “alternative lifestyles,” and harbor deep reservation about affirmative action and other ventures into large scale social engineering [9].’’

Lasch thought opposition to the new “meritocratic elites” who have isolated themselves into affluent bubbles came from their plundering of the nation, promoting destructive free trade policies and producing volatile economic cycles. In Lasch’s view, the petty bourgeois are the sinew that keeps society together; it exists as a sign of social mobility for the lower classes and its nationalism aided in sustaining the nation-state by creating common standards, common ground, a common frame of reference that prevents a country from devolving into a conflict of contending factions. Lasch chalks up this decline to the dysfunctional party system where the democrats oppose traditional values and are focused on advocating for racial minorities, while republicans support destructive laissez-faire policies which subvert the values they purport to uphold.

These prescient observations more or less predicted how this contemporary dysfunctionality would cause a populist backlash in an attempt to reverse the national decline. Taking a more structural examination, Lasch brings up how the emphasis on meritocracy cultivated new cognitive elites –  symbolic analysts who specialize in abstract concepts like stock market quotations to the visual images produced by Tinseltown. The resulting change of the bourgeoisie, moving from national capitalists who dealt with armaments, agriculture, and national resources; to rootless cosmopolitans, cemented the selection method for success which destroyed any pretension of democratic respect between classes and siphoned all the talent to the top. Collectively, they monopolized power to keep the meritocratic system in place thereby perpetuating instability.

The examination of the middle class and the upper strata extends more broadly to Lasch’s conception of what citizenship stands for. The uprooting of the elite is best evinced by the term “world citizen,” a detached spectator operating off of moral imperatives. Fundamentally this is incompatible with democracy. Explicitly hierarchical systems of privilege allow for different standards, whereas more horizontal conceptions of society necessitate common standards. Lasch paraphrases Arendt with the phrase ‘It is citizenship that confers equality, not equality that creates a right to citizenship.’ However, this system is bound for failure with those accumulating capital directing the destructive forces of the market on the broader populous to increase their respective profit margins.

Taking all of these observations and texts into account, we as Rightists can learn to better engage society by improving our understanding of history and sociology. The dissident right relies on far too much on ethnography in social analysis. Lasch provides a less materialistic treatment of the relationship between the worker and the mode of production. These insights are deeper than surface level “traditionalism and spirituality aren’t compatible with markets” faux novelty that appeals to people like Andrea Nagle and Chris Hedges.

A good critique of communitarianism emerges from Lasch’s exploration of this proposed solution to liberalism. Communitarianism suffered from ignoring economies of scale and stretching the definition of “property” to the concept of virtual wealth which creates the groundwork of dysfunctional managerialism which constitutes the antithesis. Instead, Lasch details how freemen and artisans truly existed, through the producerist framework wherein hierarchically organized organizations had incorporated the labor supply into themselves and were entitled to the markets to which they sold to. Guild-Socialism was the closest approximation of this political economy.

In total, it was comprised of self-sufficient communities with power diffused among many different parties (like a cartel), and never consolidated within one monolithic party which would’ve perpetuated the dysfunctionalities in the state and market (just look at corporate farms today). These economic conditions of self-sufficiency allowed for government laxity whereas rootless wage laborers need the government to correct the dysfunctionalities of the ever-shifting economic cycles. However, it is impossible to transplant the way of life of a young, homogeneous, eugenic America to today’s globalized world. For a variety of reasons, self-employment will keep declining and big companies will absorb all the business of formerly independent shopkeepers, farmers, and artisans.

A more coherent Right Wing economic philosophy should emerge understanding these truths about the much obscured American past. The point is you don’t need a certain arrangement of the Means of Production to hold an ethical principle (that’s materialist), even if a certain arrangement of Means of Production is conducive to the emergence of that ethical principle. We can still truly remember the ethical framework that such a way of life engenders and we don’t need to have what we’ve lost (autonomy) in order to know that we should have it.

From this defacto trilogy, Lasch charts the robust growth and hollowing out of America. Overall it reveals the expansive moral cowardice of the baby boomers –  such as their willingness to cede any ground to consumption on the flimsiest pretext of personal freedom or economic utility, the refusal to acknowledge that adults can have different levels of agency, and the stylish indifference to human suffering that masquerades as tolerance. As Rightists, Lasch can be used to grasp the current intellectual foundations and premises of both sides of the political pretext so we can improve our approach our contemporary ills. This includes extricating ourselves from the remaining libertarian strands of thought within our circles and beginning to question our understandings of progress, property, and economy.

  1. Lasch, Christopher (New York: Warner Books, 1979), The Culture of Narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations, pages 4-5.
  2. Ibid, page 51.
  3. Ibid, page 185.
  4. Lasch, Christopher (New York: Norton, 1991), The True and only Heaven: Progress and its critics, pages 228-229.
  5. Lasch, Christopher (New York: Warner Books), The Culture of Narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations, 1979, page 70.
  6. Buchanan interview, Right Now!, no. 35, April-June 2002, commenting on his book The
    Death of the West (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002).
  7. Lasch, Christopher (New York: Norton, 1991), The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its critics, page 119.
  8. Lasch, Christopher (New York: Norton, 1997), The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, page 83.
  9. Ibid, page 27-28.

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