Christopher Lasch

Rereading Christopher Lasch highlights my persistent dilemma: it seems the more I read, the less I learn.  I’m not talking about fiction.  There is a challenge there too, but that has to do with fashion.  Madeleine Miller writes two excellent novels based on Greek myths:  suddenly others are doing the same, and now lots of novels are appearing ‘retelling’ Greek stories.  The same is true of the rush of detective stories centred on the sudden mysterious disappearance of a husband.  However, fascinating though that may be (I suspect it has to do with publishers trying to bank on what they see as a trend), my comment is about non-fiction.  Here the dilemma is about paucity:  so many books coming out every year, and yet so many just recycle the same old information, perspectives and observations.  More adds less.  It makes it hard for a reader wanting to read something that adds to their understanding.  How to find it?

One topic on which this is clearly an issue has to do with ‘big picture’ books on politics and society.  Every week, a new book appears to let us know that the gap between rich and poor is growing, that politics is increasingly divisive, and that we seem to be rushing down a path to disaster.  On the facts (increasing Gini coefficients; handicapped parliaments facing entrenched attitudes; climate change), there is little new to report.  Each book takes up the same general trends, merely adding in some more recent figures, some additional tales of stuck legislation, and so on, while other facts that make the story more complex are missing.  As to the dynamic that sits behind these facts, it is hard to find any new insights.  Perhaps I see it this way because I’m getting older and grumpier.  Perhaps I see it this way because writers like Christopher Lasch had said it all before, covering many key issues years ago.

Late to the party, I first read Christopher Lasch when his book The Revolt of the Elites (the title continues ‘and the betrayal of democracy’) was published in 1994.  However, it was only  recently I decided it was time to find out a little more about the man.  The first thing I read was that he was born ninety years ago, on 1 June 1932.  I was stunned.  To me he is such a contemporary critic.  He died in 1994, the same year The Revolt of the Elites was published.  I thought he had died just a few years ago.  I saw him as a current and exemplary public intellectual, a much-needed thinker willing to present his views ‘without fear or favour’.

In a world dominated by mealy-mouthed, sensitive and woke writers anxious to say the right thing, each of his books was bracing, studies in which he was willing to argue and challenge, often espousing views outside the mainstream: e.g., does democracy deserve to survive?  Without people like Christopher Lasch (and Peter Singer, about whom I’ll write at another time), our intellectual life would be much poorer.  That doesn’t mean I agree with all he said, but he represents a perspective I can’t and don’t want to avoid.  He drew our attention to issues when attention was needed, where action was possible and important to address.

Why should we pay attention to Christopher Lasch today?  He died nearly 30 years ago.  Once one of the ‘bad boys’ in discussions, now he’s largely forgotten.  In 2022 his books are hard to find.   None are available in the Australian Capital Territory’s public library system.  We can thank The Open Mind, a US Public Broadcasting Service national public affairs program for the one interview with him I’ve found on video.  It seems oddly appropriate that it would be PBS which would think to interview him.  PBS is the longest running station in the history of American public television, commencing broadcasts in May 1956 and still going today.  The Pursuit of Progress was screened in 1991, with its long-term resident interviewer Richard Heffner talking to Lasch about his book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics.  A public intellectual on a public broadcaster.

Thirty years ago, people like Lasch were still considered important – if dangerous – critics.  However, their place in the world was already declining.  Today, we live in a time of immediacy, a ‘now’ world.  Well, that’s a bold statement, so I had better try to justify it, or, if that is too much for me to achieve well, at least explain why it makes some kind of sense.  What I mean is that I am constantly reading, hearing and seeing things that were produced recently, last week, yesterday.  Newness ensures ideas and observations get attention:  otherwise, please watch The History Channel.  If I want to look back, it seems there is a curtain blocking off most of what should be seen with a longer-term perspective.  It’s as if the message is: “it’s all happening now”, and that curtain serves to draw a veil over the reality that much of what is talked about today had been explored in the past.  History has been downgraded to entertainment or to justification, culture to messaging, currency critical.

For a moment, let me go back thirty years, to that PBS interview with Christopher Lasch.  Heffner begins his interview with quoting from the beginning of the book:  “This enquiry began with a deceptively simple question: ‘How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?’”  Good start!  There’s a question worth answering.  To understand Heffner’s reason for posing this question we have to go back even further to 1979, and Lasch’s earlier book, The Culture of Narcissism.

In The Culture of Narcissism Lasch analyses what he saw as the encroachment of a ‘therapeutic’ mindset into social and family life.  He vividly illustrates the changes following the Second World War, a time when what he called individuals’ ‘fragile self-concepts’ had led, among other things, to a fear of commitment and lasting relationships (including religion), a dread of aging (i.e., exemplified in the 1960s and 1970s with the promotion and praise of ‘youth culture’) and an almost limitless admiration for fame and celebrity (at first focussed on cinema actors, and later moving on to the ‘stars’ of television).   Lasch claimed  these post-war developments led inevitably not just to narcissism, but to dependence, a culture which undermined older notions of self-help and individual initiative.

If his training was as a historian, by the time he published The True and Only Heaven, Lasch had a clearly political agenda.  He developed a critique of social change among the middle classes, and wanted rehabilitate what he set out as a populist or ‘producerist’ alternative to the increasing transfer of responsibility to the state: “The tradition I am talking about … tends to be sceptical of programs for the wholesale redemption of society … any movement that offers any real hope for the future will have to find much of its moral inspiration in the plebeian radicalism of the past and more generally in the indictment of progress, large-scale production and bureaucracy that was drawn up by a long line of moralists whose perceptions were shaped by the producers’ view of the world.”  He wasn’t shy!

It won’t surprise you to learn that by the 1980s, Lasch was heaping scorn on contemporary mainstream American political thought on both sides of the political spectrum, but especially angering liberals with attacks on progressivism and feminism.  He didn’t hold back and once wrote that “a feminist movement that respected the achievements of women in the past would not disparage housework, motherhood or unpaid civic and neighbourly services.”  It was unpopular view. Unconcerned he added, “people need self-respecting honourable callings, not glamorous careers that carry high salaries but take them away from their families”.  It was an argument for tradition and moral responsibility, as well as an argument for small ‘c’ conservatism.   For this reason, it was what he called ‘populism’ that satisfied Lasch’s criteria of economic justice (not necessarily equality, but minimizing class-based difference), participatory democracy, strong social cohesion and moral rigor.  He knew his history and argued populism had made major mistakes during the New Deal and increasingly been co-opted by its enemies and ignored by its friends. One interesting insight into his views is that he praised the early work and thought of Martin Luther King Jr. as a powerful advocate of American populism, and yet, in his view, King fell short of this radical vision by embracing essentially bureaucratic, government managed solutions to ongoing racial stratification.  Definitely not a socialist, and definitely antagonistic to big government.

By the time I first read Christopher Lasch in 1994, his analysis had taken a further step, past the political systemIn this, his final book, his target was “the new meritocratic class, a group that had achieved success through the upward-mobility of education and career and that increasingly came to be defined by rootlessness, cosmopolitanism, a thin sense of obligation, and diminishing reservoirs of patriotism … [and he argued that] this new class ‘retained many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues’, lacking the sense of ‘reciprocal obligation’ that had been a feature of the old order.”

It is slightly disconcerting to read The Revolt of the Elites today, as if we are in some kind of time warp.  His attack on class divisions and the meritocracy seems obviously contemporary.  The figures he cites about the widening gap between the top and bottom of American society have been repeated time and time again.  We don’t need to read Thomas Piketty or Michael Sandel.  He had already described the new elites, those who are in the top percentiles in terms of income, who no longer lived in the same world as their fellow-citizens.  Piketty and Sandel are merely updating and embellishing what he had clearly stated in 1994.

Lasch had a great ability to express points his points vividly.  He suggested globalisation had turned elites into tourists in their own countries, a class who saw themselves as “world citizens, but without accepting… any of the obligations that citizenship in a polity normally implies”.  He described their ties to an international culture of work, leisure, information, with the consequence that he saw many of them as increasingly and deeply indifferent to the prospect of national decline.  Instead of financing public services and the public treasury, he described how the new elites were investing their money in improving their ‘voluntary ghettos’: private schools in their residential neighbourhoods, private police, even their own garbage collection systems. They were increasingly “withdrawn from common life”.

From post-war narcissism to an embracing and paternalistic state, Lasch documented the final stage in the collapse of a meaningful democracy in the US.  Run by the tiny elite who control the international flows of capital and information, he outlined how to a large degree political debate had become limited to the dominant classes and political ideologies had lost almost all contact with the lives of ordinary citizens. As a result, detached from everyday concerns and issues, he pointed out the meritocracy had no clear and uncontroversial solution to these problems and, and, as a consequence the outcome was a series of increasingly furious ideological battles on related issues.  These ideological battles remained protected and isolated from the problems affecting the working classes: the decline of industrial activity, the resulting loss of employment, the decline of the middle class, the steady increase in the number of poor people, the rising crime rate, growing drug trafficking, the urban crisis. It sounds disconcertingly familiar.  He could have written The Revolt of the Elites last week.

To steal the chorus lines from the eponymous song, first recorded by Nina Simone, ‘please don’t let me be misunderstood’ (“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good; Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”).  My intention is not to praise every claim Lasch made.  My aim is to credit him as a true public intellectual, and to recognise that while he was off target in some views, he set out a critique of the likely future of 21st Century capitalism that remains central today.  It is a challenge to find much of substance that has been added to his analysis.

The core of Lasch’s critique was his concern over the extent to which people were ceding agency, becoming increasingly narcissistic and willing to allow big business to shape and manage their world.  To me, this is part of a deeply worrying trend in contemporary society, which is to step away from experiencing and examining the world directly, and instead expecting ‘others’ to explain it in a readily digestible set of messages on television, in tweets, and in all the other systems of shallow information provision we see today.

If that sounds rather over-excited, let me illustrate my perspective by referring to a recent article by Alice Gribbin in Tablet on ‘The Great Debasement’.  She was concerned with how art is presented today.  As she explains, “Artworks are not to be experienced but to be understood: from all directions, across the visual art world’s many arenas, the relationship between art and the viewer has come to be framed in this way.  An artwork communicates a message, and comprehending that message is the work of its audience. … This vulgar and impoverishing approach to art denigrates the human mind, spirit, and senses.  From where did the approach originate, and how did it come to such prominence?  Historians a century from now will know better than we do.  What can be stated with some certainty is the debasement is nearly complete: the institutions tasked with the promotion and preservation of art have determined that the artwork is a message-delivery system.  More important than tracing the origins of this soul-denying formula is to refuse it — to insist on experiences that elevate aesthetics and thereby affirm both life and art.”  Gribbin was writing about the visual arts, but the comments are just as apposite in relation to literature and criticism.

Gribbins is quite forthright.  Let me quote a little more:  “To approach an artwork primarily concerned with grasping its message is necessarily to bar oneself from aesthetic experience.  Utilitarians decommission their all-too-human parts—their spiritual, sensory, and emotional faculties—each time they encounter art.  Out of ignorance, they conflate the aesthetic with the cosmetic: shallow, a matter of appearances.  They could not be more misguided. … Progressive institutions today are overrun with utilitarians.  They are the professors within universities, the administrators at major grant-awarding bodies—the MacArthur, Mellon, Guggenheim, and Ford foundations; Creative Capital; the NEA and NEH. At the public-facing venues, their attitude to art is everywhere evident: in the types of exhibitions mounted; in the way shows are curated, publicized, and reviewed; in what aspects of artworks are highlighted for audiences.  Within museums, audiences are encouraged to seek not aesthetic experiences but the feeling of knowingness.  Today’s educated classes cannot, as those in the 1950s and ’60s could, expect to build modest personal collections of contemporary art.  Far better, though, the institutions insist, to possess art intellectually, to understand works once and for all.  Artists can be mentally checked off a list: ‘I understand her paintings; his installations; her sculptures. I have studied their relevance. Their message is clear to me.’”

If Lasch was with us, today he’d be with Alice Gribbin, explaining how her perspective can be applied to education, welfare, class, the economy, the political system.  We are overrun by utilitarians, explaining the way the world is to save us from the hard work of trying to make sense by ourselves, so we can enjoy the true and only heaven, the one created for us by the 1% living in another world, far, far away from ours.  He doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.