Scourge of the elites

Christopher Lasch was a fearless iconoclast who defied left and right labels. Love him or loathe him, you need to grapple with his ideas if you want to understand today’s big political and moral debates.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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In his prime, there was no more incendiary intellectual in America than Christopher Lasch. A prolific historian and social critic, Lasch wrote with erudition and flair about a wide range of topics from the early 1960s until his death in 1994, striving ‘for nothing less than a full understanding of the modern condition’, as a fellow historian put it. Called a ‘Marxist’ and a ‘fascist’ and almost everything else in between, he busted out of the conventional ‘right’ and ‘left’ political boxes. His writings typically aroused angry and emotional responses from his opponents.

The period in which Lasch worked – roughly from the start of the Sixties to the end of the Cold War – was a turning point in the US. Politics, society and culture were changing rapidly, and ‘social domination’ (as he termed it) was taking on new guises. Lasch had to struggle to keep up. There were ‘so few historical precedents’, he remarked in 1974, and admitted he was ‘pretty baffled about the direction that we are going in’. But despite the disorienting effect of the changes around him, Lasch managed to produce brilliant insights that remain very relevant.

Indeed, if you want to delve into many of today’s hot topics in any depth, you have to engage with Lasch. Study the family and marriage, therapeutic culture, elites and the masses, the ‘Culture Wars’, the role of the state – you name it and you’ll find that Lasch got there first.

For that reason, I was pleasantly surprised to come across Hope in a Scattering Time, a biography of Lasch by Eric Miller, published in 2010. Miller’s book is a great way to begin, or continue, to learn about Lasch’s ideas. You might suspect that a biography about an intellectual would be dry, but Miller’s isn’t at all. Lasch was driven, a man on a quest to comprehend the world around him, and Miller brings that to life. In Lasch, Miller may have had promising material to work with, but it’s still impressive that he is able to convey the process of intellectual discovery and battle in such a way as to make it appear vital and even inspiring.

Lasch began his writing career with a critique of liberalism, and this would become a lifelong endeavor. In The New Radicalism (1965) he sought to explain how the promise of early liberalism and the New Deal ended up as a defence of the status quo and the Cold War. In doing so, Lasch was distancing himself from his parents’ views (both politically engaged liberals) as well as the major figures in the academic history profession, such as Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger, who he accused of cosying-up to power.

Lasch considered himself a man of the left, and saw his attack on liberalism as coming from that perspective. But he also admitted that he was not entirely sure of his own viewpoint, and so he dived into social theory, reading Marx, Weber and the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse), among others. As we learn, this would become a typical pattern: when confronted with doubt and intellectual obstacles, he upped his reading and expanded into new areas. Indeed, he was far from the typical academic historian: he reached far afield into sociology, psychology and other areas, wherever his explorations would lead him.

Lasch was active in politics in the 1960s, protesting against the Vietnam War and engaging in other activities. But he did not align himself with student radicals, who he saw as cut off from mainstream America. He was scathing about the philistinism and irrationalism of the New Left. In his view, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) represented ‘a tyranny of inexperience and ignorance’. Against their anti-intellectualism, he upheld the university as ‘the richest repository of humane values’. He concluded that the impact of the counterculture on politics was a step backwards: ‘Hedonism, self-expression, doing your own thing, dancing in the streets, drugs and sex are a formula for political impotence and a new despotism.’

Alienated from the student radicals, and with his own political initiatives going nowhere, Lasch decided to return to scholarly work. Again, he widened his reach, studying Freud in particular. His research would culminate in two landmark books on the family, society and the self: Haven in a Heartless World (1977) and The Culture of Narcissism (1979).

While feminists and others were criticising the family as oppressive, Lasch argued that it was under attack from the forces of capitalism, and that was problematic. Americans retreated into the home in the nineteenth century as a refuge from industrialisation, but in the twentieth century such a refuge was no longer available, leaving them exposed.

Feminists and the left were outraged, thinking Lasch wanted to send women back into the kitchen. But that wasn’t what he was arguing: he called for a reorganisation of work so that both men and women worked and nurtured kids. Feminists should confront raising the next generation and the structure of work, he contended, rather than rail against the repressiveness of the nuclear family. Lasch sought to ‘make concern for the future [society’s] central preoccupation’.

He was raising a question that continues today: has the decline of the family been liberating for people? He argued no: the family has been unravelling, but alternative arrangements that have emerged in its wake, such as co-habitation, are accommodations to the family’s demise rather than positive and viable forms of commitment.

More broadly, he was critical of the state’s encroachment on all aspects of family life. The ‘helping professions’ were practitioners of a new form of ‘priestcraft’ that ‘undermined the family’s capacity to provide for itself’, he said. For example, schools had become a vehicle for the state to override the family: ‘The school claims to be able to teach you how to live, how to cook, drive a car, get along with people, and all the other things that were formerly left, wisely, to agencies better equipped for this kind of training.’

While his erstwhile allies were abandoning him, Lasch gained a new public following with The Culture of Narcissism, which was a surprise bestseller. He even became something of a celebrity: he was profiled by People magazine, and Jimmy Carter invited him to the White House. He continued his arguments about the family, but went far beyond, analysing advertising, sports, education, sex and old age. The book seemed to capture a moment, and Carter in fact used some of Lasch’s lines in his famous ‘malaise’ speech.

It was, however, another work that was widely misinterpreted. Lasch was not simply criticising America in the ‘Me Decade’ for a rise in the number of selfish egotists or hedonists. Rather, he was examining a bigger social phenomenon: the effects of the break-up of the family and other social institutions that had previously provided the communal ties that bound individuals to society. Ironically, social ties were necessary for the self to flourish; remove them, and the result was not strong, liberated people, but stunted and insecure individuals.

Lasch identified the emergence of a ‘therapeutic sensibility’ alongside the rise of narcissism: ‘People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal wellbeing, health, and psychic security.’ Along with Philip Rieff, Lasch was one of the trailblazers in diagnosing the deleterious effects of this sensibility, including the state’s use of it for coercive ends. This trend has clearly spread and worsened over time, and, as Frank Furedi notes, we now live in a full-blown ‘therapy culture’ in which people are assumed to be inherently vulnerable, and every sphere of life has become subject to a new emotional correctness.

If Lasch’s criticisms of the left during the Sixties damaged his ties with those on the left, his writings on the family and the self in the Seventies seemed to sever them decisively. ‘By 1980’, Miller writes, ‘rather than standing stridently in the vanguard of left intellectuals, he would be standing virtually alone – a radical looking in bewilderment for his erstwhile friends on the left and shunning many on the right who were beginning to warm up to him’. Lasch never would switch allegiances to the right, as, say, the neo-conservatives did. He sought instead to move beyond left and right, which he viewed as outdated categories anyway.

But the experience was confusing. ‘You never know who your friends are going to be from one minute to the next, and one hardly knows how to conduct oneself’, he said. His solution? ‘Adopt a surly demeanor towards one and all in the hope of offending everybody’ (!). Lasch knew full well that his forays into the family and other areas would lead to a break with the left, but he was fearless in pursuit of what he thought was the truth, no matter what the personal consequence.

By the early Nineties, Lasch emerged with a lengthy and sprawling book, The True and Only Heaven (1991). In it, he revealed a new line: a strident attack on progress. Growth undermined traditions and communities, he argued. Here he was echoing contemporary green thinking on limits, and he embraced environmentalism. In one sense, it wasn’t an entirely new departure for Lasch, as he had shown indications earlier that he had taken on board anti-progress views from Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment (among others), but now his opposition was front and centre.

Before The True and Only Heaven, Lasch had resisted developing a full philosophical perspective. You could say that this lack of an ‘-ism’ worked to his (and our) benefit, as he was not tied to a rigid viewpoint, and instead could creatively adapt his ideas in a period of flux. But now, with The True and Only Heaven, Lasch sought to provide a wider foundation for his defence of communities and traditional institutions. Yet in rejecting industrialisation and modernity themselves, rather than their capitalist forms, he was throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Before his tragic death from cancer (at the young age of 61), Lasch worked on The Revolt of the Elites. Here he elaborated on prior arguments, with a focus on an angle that had preoccupied him his entire career: the exposure of elitism. He particularly called out liberals, saying that their condescension towards the values of ‘Middle America’ created a space for Republicans to appear on the side of the masses. Liberalism had ‘no particularly solid and rooted constituency outside of the rootless professional class’ and lacked a vision of society, he said. That meant ‘the ascendancy of the new class rests not on its secure command of an intellectual and political tradition, but on its imagined superiority to the average unenlightened American bigot’. Lasch argued that today’s liberal elites have ‘the vices of the aristocracy without its virtues’.

He also used Revolt of the Elites to elaborate on his conception of democracy, which he saw as much more than the formal processes. In particular, he highlighted that the content of a true democracy depends on independent individuals: ‘Democracy works best when men and women do things for themselves, with the help of their friends and neighbors, instead of depending on the state.’

Lasch understood his anti-progress stance as a radical one that was neither traditionally liberal nor conservative. But he did not foresee how easily liberals and the left united in embracing this new ideology of limits and environmentalism, and how it would become another weapon in the armament of state control and elitism. School lesson time is now used to indoctrinate youth in green thinking, and kids are encouraged to chide their parents for not being environmentally with-it. And the anti-consumerist ethos Lasch espoused is now deployed to blame the working class’s ‘obsession’ with buying more ‘stuff’ as the root of our economic problems. Time has shown that imposing artificial limits on growth – like environmental restrictions on fracking – tends to hurt the working classes most.

As Miller tells it, Lasch once told a TV interviewer that he was ‘hopeful, not optimistic’. No matter how pessimistic he was about the prospects for transcending the current situation, Lasch’s search revealed that he never lost hope. I’d say that if thinkers of Christopher Lasch’s calibre are possible, it’s rational to hope.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

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