A Reaction to Roger
"Christopher Lasch vs. the elites"
"New Criterion", Vol. 13, p.9 (04-01-1995)
by: Sam Vaknin
"The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety.
He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to
find a meaning in life. Liberated from the superstitions of
the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence. Superficially
relaxed and tolerant, he finds little use for dogmas of racial
and ethnic purity but at the same time forfeits the security
of group loyalties and regards everyone as a rival for the favors
conferred by a paternalistic state. His sexual attitudes are
permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation
from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace. Fiercely competitive
in his demand for approval and acclaim, he distrusts competition
because he associates it unconsciously with an unbridled urge
to destroy. Hence he repudiates the competitive ideologies that
flourished at an earlier stage of capitalist development and
distrusts even their limited expression in sports and games.
He extols cooperation and teamwork while harboring deeply antisocial
impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in the
secret belief that they do not apply to himself. Acquisitive
in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate
goods and provisions against the future, in the manner of the
acquisitive individualist of nineteenth-century political economy,
but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of
restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire." (Christopher Lasch
- The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an age of Diminishing
"A characteristic of our times is the predominance, even in
groups traditionally selective, of the mass and the vulgar.
Thus, in intellectual life, which of its essence requires and
presupposes qualification, one can note the progressive triumph
of the pseudo-intellectual, unqualified, unqualifiable..." (Jose
Ortega y Gasset - The Revolt of the Masses, 1932)
Can Science be passionate? This question seems to sum up the
life of Christopher Lasch, erstwhile a historian of culture
later transmogrified into an ersatz prophet of doom and consolation,
a latter day Jeremiah. Judging by his (prolific and eloquent)
output, the answer is a resounding no.
There is no single Lasch. This chronicler of culture, did so
mainly by chronicling his inner turmoil, conflicting ideas and
ideologies, emotional upheavals, and intellectual vicissitudes.
In this sense, of (courageous) self-documentation, Mr. Lasch
epitomized Narcissism, was the quintessential Narcissist, the
better positioned to criticize the phenomenon.
Some "scientific" disciplines (e.g., the history of culture
and History in general) are closer to art than to the rigorous
(a.k.a. "exact" or "natural" or "physical" sciences). Lasch
borrowed heavily from other, more established branches of knowledge
without paying tribute to the original, strict meaning of concepts
and terms. Such was the use that he made of "Narcissism".
"Narcissism" is a relatively well-defined psychological term.
I expound upon it elsewhere ("Malignant self Love - Narcissism
Re-Visited"). The Narcissistic Personality Disorder - the acute
form of pathological Narcissism - is the name given to a group
of 9 symptoms (see: DSM-4). They include: a grandiose Self (illusions
of grandeur coupled with an inflated, unrealistic sense of the
Self), inability to empathize with the Other, the tendency to
exploit and manipulate others, idealization of other people
(in cycles of idealization and devaluation), rage attacks and
so on. Narcissism, therefore, has a clear clinical definition,
etiology and prognosis.
The use that Lasch makes of this word has nothing to do with
its usage in psychopathology. True, Lasch did his best to sound
"medicinal". He spoke of "(national) malaise" and accused the
American society of lack of self-awareness. But choice of words
does not a coherence make.
ANALYTIC SUMMARY OF KIMBALL
Lasch was a member, by conviction, of an imaginary "Pure Left".
This turned out to be a code for an odd mixture of Marxism,
religious fundamentalism, populism, Freudian analysis, conservatism
and any other -ism that Lasch happened to come across. Intellectual
consistency was not Lasch's strong point, but this is excusable,
even commendable in the search for Truth. What is not excusable
is the passion and conviction with which Lasch imbued the advocacy
of each of these consecutive and mutually exclusive ideas.
"The Culture of Narcissism - American Life in an Age of Diminishing
Expectations" was published in the last year of the unhappy
presidency of Jimmy Carter (1979). The latter endorsed the book
publicly (in his famous "national malaise" speech).
The main thesis of the book is that the Americans have created
a self-absorbed (though not self aware), greedy and frivolous
society which depended on consumerism, demographic studies,
opinion polls and Government to know and to define itself. What
is the solution?
Lasch proposed a "return to basics": self-reliance, the family,
nature, the community, and the Protestant work ethic. To those
who adhere, he promised an elimination of their feelings of
alienation and despair.
The apparent radicalism (the pursuit of social justice and equality)
was only that: apparent. The New Left was morally self-indulgent.
In an Orwellian manner, liberation became tyranny and transcendence
- irresponsibility. The "democratization" of education: "...has
neither improved popular understanding of modern society, raised
the quality of popular culture, nor reduced the gap between
wealth and poverty, which remains as wide as ever. On the other
hand, it has contributed to the decline of critical thought
and the erosion of intellectual standards, forcing us to consider
the possibility that mass education, as conservatives have argued
all along, is intrinsically incompatible with the maintenance
of educational standards".
Lasch derided capitalism, consumerism and corporate America
as much as he loathed the mass media, the government and even
the welfare system (intended to deprive its clients of their
moral responsibility and indoctrinate them as victims of social
circumstance). These always remained the villains. But to this
- classically leftist - list he added the New Left. He bundled
the two viable alternatives in American life and discarded them
both. Anyhow, capitalism's days were numbered, a contradictory
system as it was, resting on "imperialism, racism, elitism,
and inhuman acts of technological destruction". What was left
except God and the Family?
Lasch was deeply anti-capitalist. He rounded up the usual suspects
with the prime suspect being multinationals. To him, it wasn't
only a question of exploitation of the working masses. Capitalism
acted as acid on the social and moral fabrics and made them
disintegrate. Lasch adopted, at times, a theological perception
of capitalism as an evil, demonic entity. Zeal usually leads
to inconsistency of argumentation: Lasch claimed, for instance,
that capitalism negated social and moral traditions while pandering
to the lowest common denominator. There is a contradiction here:
social mores and traditions are, in many cases, THE lowest common
denominator. Lasch displayed a total lack of understanding of
market mechanisms and the history of markets. True, markets
start out as mass-oriented and entrepreneurs tend to mass- produce
to cater to the needs of the newfound consumers. However, as
markets evolve - they fragment. Individual nuances of tastes
and preferences tend to transform the mature market from a cohesive,
homogenous entity - to a loose coalition of niches. Computer
aided design and production, targeted advertising, custom made
products, personal services - are all the outcomes of the maturation
of markets. It is where capitalism is absent that uniform mass
production of goods of shoddy quality takes over. This may have
been Lasch's biggest fault: that he persistently and wrong-headedly
ignored reality when it did not serve his pet theorizing. He
made up his mind and did not wish to be confused by the facts.
The facts are that all the alternatives to the known four models
of capitalism (the Anglo-Saxon, the European, the Japanese and
the Chinese) have failed miserably and have led to the very
consequences that Lasch warned against. in capitalism. It is
in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, that social solidarity
has evaporated, that traditions were trampled upon, that religion
was brutally suppressed, that pandering to the lowest common
denominator was official policy, that poverty - material, intellectual
and spiritual - became all pervasive, that people lost all self
reliance and communities disintegrated.
There is nothing to excuse Lasch: the Wall fell in 1989. An
inexpensive trip would have confronted him with the results
of the alternatives to capitalism. That he failed to acknowledge
his life-long misconceptions and compile the Lasch errata cum
mea culpa is the sign of deep-seated intellectual dishonesty.
The man was not interested in the truth. In many respects, he
was a propagandist. Worse, he combined an amateurish understanding
of the Economic Sciences with the fervor of a fundamentalist
preacher to produce an absolutely non-scientific discourse.
Let us analyze what he regarded as the basic weakness of capitalism
(in "The True and Only Heaven", 1991): its need to increase
capacity and production ad infinitum in order to sustain itself.
Such a feature would have been destructive if capitalism were
to operate in a closed system. The finiteness of the economic
sphere would have brought capitalism to ruin. But the world
is NOT a closed economic system. 80,000,000 new consumers are
added annually, markets globalize, trade barriers are falling,
international trade is growing three times faster than the world's
GDP and still accounts for less than 15% of it, not to mention
space exploration which is at its inception. The horizon is,
for all practical purposes, unlimited. The economic system is,
therefore, open. Capitalism will never be defeated because it
has an infinite number of consumers and markets to colonize.
That is not to say that capitalism will not have its crises,
even crises of over-capacity. But such crises are a part of
the business cycle not of the underlying market mechanism. They
are adjustment pains, the noises of growing up - not the last
gasps of dying. To claim otherwise is either to deceive or to
be spectacularly ignorant not only of economic fundamentals
but of what is happening in the world. It is as intellectually
rigorous as the "New Paradigm" which says, in effect, that the
business cycle and inflation are both dead and buried.
Lasch's argument: capitalism must forever expand if it is to
exist (debatable) - hence the idea of "progress", an ideological
corollary of the drive to expand - progress transforms people
into insatiable consumers (apparently, a term of abuse).
But this is to ignore the fact that people create economic doctrines
(and reality, according to Marx) - not the reverse. In other
words, the consumers created capitalism to help them maximize
their consumption. History is littered with the remains of economic
theories, which did not match the psychological makeup of the
human race. There is Marxism, for instance. The best theorized,
most intellectually rich and well-substantiated theory must
be put to the cruel test of public opinion and of the real conditions
of existence. Barbarous amounts of force and coercion need to
be applied to keep people functioning under contra-human-nature
ideologies such as communism. A horde of what Althusser calls
Ideological State Apparatuses must be put to work to preserve
the dominion of a religion, ideology, or intellectual theory
which do not amply respond to the needs of the individuals that
comprise society. The Socialist (more so the Marxist and the
malignant version, the Communist) prescriptions were eradicated
because they did not correspond to the OBJECTIVE conditions
of the world. They were hermetically detached, and existed only
in their mythical, contradiction-free realm (to borrow again
Lasch commits the double intellectual crime of disposing of
the messenger AND ignoring the message: people are consumers
and there is nothing we can do about it but try to present to
them as wide an array as possible of goods and services. High
brow and low brow have their place in capitalism because of
the preservation of the principle of choice, which Lasch abhors.
He presents a false predicament: he who elects progress elects
meaninglessness and hopelessness. Is it better - asks Lasch
sanctimoniously - to consume and live in these psychological
conditions of misery and emptiness? The answer is self evident,
according to him. Lasch patronizingly prefers the working class
undertones commonly found in the petite bourgeois: "its moral
realism, its understanding that everything has its price, its
respect for limits, its skepticism about progress... sense of
unlimited power conferred by science - the intoxicating prospect
of man's conquest of the natural world".
The limits that Lasch is talking about are metaphysical, theological.
Man's rebellion against God is in question. This, in Lasch's
view, is a punishable offence. Both capitalism and science are
pushing the limits, infused with the kind of hubris which the
mythological Gods always chose to penalize (remember Prometheus?).
What more can be said about a man that postulated that "the
secret of happiness lies in renouncing the right to be happy".
Some matters are better left to psychiatrists than to philosophers.
There is megalomania, too: Lasch cannot grasp how could people
continue to attach importance to money and other worldly goods
and pursuits after his seminal works were published, denouncing
materialism for what it was - a hollow illusion? The conclusion:
people are ill informed, egotistical, stupid (because they succumb
to the lure of consumerism offered to them by politicians and
America is in an "age of diminishing expectations" (Lasch's).
Happy people are either weak or hypocritical.
Lasch envisioned a communitarian society, one where men are
self made and the State is gradually made redundant. This is
a worthy vision and a vision worthy of some other era. Lasch
never woke up to the realities of the late 20th century: mass
populations concentrated in sprawling metropolitan areas, market
failures in the provision of public goods, the gigantic tasks
of introducing literacy and good health to vast swathes of the
planet, an ever increasing demand for evermore goods and services.
Small, self-help communities are not efficient enough to survive
- though the ethical aspect is praiseworthy:
"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."
"A misplaced compassion degrades both the victims, who are reduced
to objects of pity, and their would-be benefactors, who find
it easier to pity their fellow citizens than to hold them up
to impersonal standards, attainment of which would entitle them
to respect. Unfortunately, such statements do not tell the whole."
No wonder that Lasch has been compared to Mathew Arnold who
"(culture) does not try to teach down to the level of inferior
classes; ...It seeks to do away with classes; to make the best
that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere...
the men of culture are the true apostles of equality. The great
men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing,
for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to
the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time."
(Culture and Anarchy) - a quite elitist view.
Unfortunately, Lasch, most of the time, was no more original
or observant than the average columnist:
"The mounting evidence of widespread inefficiency and corruption,
the decline of American productivity, the pursuit of speculative
profits at the expense of manufacturing, the deterioration of
our country's material infrastructure, the squalid conditions
in our crime-rid- den cities, the alarming and disgraceful growth
of poverty, and the widening disparity between poverty and wealth
. growing contempt for manual labor... growing gulf between
wealth and poverty... the growing insularity of the elites...
growing impatience with the constraints imposed by long-term
responsibilities and commitments."
Paradoxically, Lasch was an elitist. The very person who attacked
the "talking classes" (the "symbolic analysts" in Robert Reich's
less successful rendition) - freely railed against the "lowest
common denominator". True, Lasch tried to reconcile this apparent
contradiction by saying that diversity does not entail low standards
or selective application of criteria. This, however, tends to
undermine his arguments against capitalism. In his typical,
"The latest variation on this familiar theme, its reductio ad
absurdum, is that a respect for cultural diversity forbids us
to impose the standards of privileged groups on the victims
of oppression." This leads to "universal incompetence" and a
weakness of the spirit:
"Impersonal virtues like fortitude, workmanship, moral courage,
honesty, and respect for adversaries (are rejected by the champions
of diversity)... Unless we are prepared to make demands on one
another, we can enjoy only the most rudimentary kind of common
life... (agreed standards) are absolutely indispensable to a
democratic society (because) double standards mean second-class
This is almost plagiarism. Allan Bloom ("The Closing of the
"(openness became trivial) ...Openness used to be the virtue
that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means
accepting everything and denying reason's power. The unrestrained
and thoughtless pursuit of openness . has rendered openness
Lasch: ".moral paralysis of those who value 'openness' above
all (democracy is more than) openness and toleration... In the
absence of common standards... tolerance becomes indifference."
"Open Mind" becomes: "Empty Mind".
Lasch observed that America has become a culture of excuses
(for self and the "disadvantaged"), of protected judicial turf
conquered through litigation (a.k.a. "rights"), of neglect of
responsibilities. Free speech is restricted by fear of offending
potential audiences. We confuse respect (which must be earned)
with toleration and appreciation, discriminating judgement with
indiscriminate acceptance, and turning the blind eye. Fair and
well. Political correctness has indeed degenerated into moral
incorrectness and plain numbness.
But why is the proper exercise of democracy dependent upon the
devaluation of money and markets? Why is luxury "morally repugnant"
and how can this be PROVEN rigorously, formal logically? Lasch
does not opine - he informs. What he says has immediate truth-value,
is non-debatable, and intolerant. Consider this passage, which
came out of the pen of an intellectual tyrant:
"...the difficulty of limiting the influence of wealth suggests
that wealth itself needs to be limited... a democratic society
cannot allow unlimited accumulation... a moral condemnation
of great wealth... backed up with effective political action...
at least a rough approximation of economic equality... in the
old days (Americans agreed that people should not have) far
in excess of their needs."
Lasch failed to realize that democracy and wealth formation
are two sides of the SAME coin. That democracy is not likely
to spring forth, nor is it likely to survive poverty or total
economic equality. The confusion of the two ideas (material
equality and political equality) is common: it is the result
of centuries of plutocracy (only wealthy people had the right
to vote, universal suffrage is very recent). The great achievement
of democracy in the 20th century was to separate these two aspects:
to combine egalitarian political access with an unequal distribution
of wealth. Still, the existence of wealth - no matter how distributed
- is a pre-condition. Without it there will never be real democracy.
Wealth generates the leisure needed to obtain education and
to participate in community matters. Put differently, when one
is hungry - one is less prone to read Mr. Lasch, less inclined
to think about civil rights, let alone exercise them.
Mr. Lasch is authoritarian and patronizing, even when he is
strongly trying to convince us otherwise. The use of the phrase:
"far in excess of their needs" rings of destructive envy. Worse,
it rings of a dictatorship, a negation of individualism, a restriction
of civil liberties, an infringement on human rights, anti-liberalism
at its worst. Who is to decide what is wealth, how much of it
constitutes excess, how much is "far in excess" and, above all,
what are the needs of the person deemed to be in excess? Which
state commissariat will do the job? Would Mr. Lasch have volunteered
to phrase the guidelines and if so, which criteria would he
have applied? Eighty percent (80%) of the population of the
world would have considered Mr. Lasch's wealth to be far in
excess of his needs. Mr. Lasch is prone to inaccuracies. Read
Alexis de Tocqueville (1835):
"I know of no country where the love of money has taken stronger
hold on the affections of men and where a profounder contempt
is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property...
the passions that agitate the Americans most deeply are not
their political but their commercial passions. They prefer the
good sense which amasses large fortunes to that enterprising
genius which frequently dissipates them."
In his book: "The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy"
(published posthumously in 1995) Lasch bemoans a divided society,
a degraded public discourse, a social and political crisis,
that is really a spiritual crisis.
The book's title is modeled after Jose Ortega y Gasset's "Revolt
of the Masses" in which he described the forthcoming political
domination of the masses as a major cultural catastrophe. The
old ruling elites were the storehouses of all that's good, including
all civic virtues, he explained. The masses - warned Ortega
y Gasset, prophetically - will act directly and even outside
the law in what he called a hyperdemocracy. They will impose
themselves on the other classes. The masses harbored a feeling
of omnipotence: they had unlimited rights, history was on their
side (they were "the spoiled child of human history" in his
language), they were exempt from submission to superiors because
they regarded themselves as the source of all authority. They
faced an unlimited horizon of possibilities and they were entitled
to everything at any time. Their whims, wishes and desires constituted
the new law of the earth.
Lasch just ingeniously reversed the argument. The same characteristics,
he said, are to be found in today's elites, "those who control
the international flow of money and information, preside over
philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning,
manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the
terms of public debate". But they are self appointed, they represent
none but themselves. The lower middle classes were much more
conservative and stable than their "self appointed spokesmen
and would-be liberators". They know the limits and that there
are limits, they have sound political instincts:
".favor limits on abortion, cling to the two-parent family as
a source of stability in a turbulent world, resist experiments
lifestyles', and harbor deep reservations about affirmative
action and other ventures in large- scale social engineering."
And who purports to represent them? The mysterious "elite" which,
as we find out, is nothing but a code word for the likes of
Lasch. In Lasch's world Armageddon is unleashed between the
people and this specific elite. What about the political, military,
industrial, business and other elites? Yok. What about conservative
intellectuals who support what the middle classes do and "have
deep reservations about affirmative action" (to quote him)?
Aren't they part of the elite? No answer. So why call it "elite"
and not "liberal intellectuals"? A matter of (lack) of integrity.
The members of this fake elite are hypochondriacs, obsessed
with death, narcissistic and weaklings. A scientific description
based on thorough research, no doubt.
Even if such a horror-movie elite did exist - what would have
been its role? Did he suggest an elite-less pluralistic, modern,
technology-driven, essentially (for better or for worse) capitalistic
democratic society? Others have dealt with this question seriously
and sincerely: Arnold, T.S. Elliot ("Notes towards the Definition
of Culture"). Reading Lasch is an absolute waste of time when
compared to their studies. The man is so devoid of self-awareness
(no pun intended) that he calls himself "a stern critic of nostalgia".
If there is one word with which it is possible to summarize
his life's work it is nostalgia (to a world which never existed:
a world of national and local loyalties, almost no materialism,
savage nobleness, communal responsibility for the Other). In
short, to an Utopia compared to the dystopia that is America.
The pursuit of a career and of specialized, narrow, expertise,
he called a "cult" and "the antithesis of democracy". Yet, he
was a member of the "elite" which he so chastised and the publication
of his tirades enlisted the work of hundreds of careerists and
experts. He extolled self-reliance - but ignored the fact that
it was often employed in the service of wealth formation and
material accumulation. Were there two kinds of self-reliance
- one to be condemned because of its results? Was there any
human activity devoid of a dimension of wealth creation? Therefore,
are all human activities
(except those required for survival) to cease?
Lasch identified emerging elites of professionals and managers,
a cognitive elite, manipulators of symbols, a threat to "real"
democracy. Reich described them as trafficking in information,
manipulating words and numbers for a living. They live in an
abstract world in which information and expertise are valuable
commodities in an international market. No wonder the privileged
classes are more interested in the fate of the global system
than in their neighborhood, country, or region. They are estranged,
they "remove themselves from common life". They are heavily
invested in social mobility. The new meritocracy made professional
advancement and the freedom to make money "the overriding goal
of social policy". They are fixated on finding opportunities
and they democratize competence. This, said Lasch, betrayed
the American dream!?:
"The reign of specialized expertise is the antithesis of democracy
as it was understood by those who saw this country as 'The last
best hope of Earth'."
For Lasch citizenship did not mean equal access to economic
competition. It meant a shared participation in a common political
dialogue (in a common life). The goal of escaping the "laboring
classes" was deplorable. The real aim should be to ground the
values and institutions of democracy in the inventiveness, industry,
self-reliance and self-respect of workers. The "talking classes"
brought the public discourse into decline. Instead of intelligently
debating issues, they engaged in ideological battles, dogmatic
quarrels, name-calling. The debate grew less public, more esoteric
and insular. There are no "third places", civic institutions
which "promote general conversation across class lines". So,
social classes are forced to "speak to themselves in a dialect...
inaccessible to outsiders". The media establishment is more
committed to "a misguided ideal of objectivity" than to context
and continuity, which underlie any meaningful public discourse.
The spiritual crisis was another matter altogether. This was
simply the result of over-secularization. The secular worldview
is devoid of doubts and insecurities, explained Lasch. Thus,
single-handedly, he eliminated modern science, which is driven
by constant doubts, insecurities and questioning and by an utter
lack of respect for authority, transcendental as it may be.
With amazing gall, Lasch says that it was religion which provided
a home for spiritual uncertainties!!!
Religion - writes Lasch - was a source of higher meaning, a
repository of practical moral wisdom. Minor matters such as
the suspension of curiosity, doubt and disbelief entailed by
religious practice and the blood-saturated history of all religions
- these are not mentioned. Why spoil a good argument?
The new elites disdain religion and are hostile to it:
"The culture of criticism is understood to rule out religious
commitments... (religion) was something useful for weddings
and funerals but otherwise dispensable."
Without the benefit of a higher ethic provided by religion (for
which the price of suppression of free thought is paid - SV)
- the knowledge elites resort to cynicism and revert to irreverence.
"The collapse of religion, its replacement by the remorselessly
critical sensibility exemplified by psychoanalysis and the degeneration
of the 'analytic attitude' into an all out assault on ideals
of every kind have left our culture in a sorry state."
Lasch was a fanatic religious man. He would have rejected this
title with vehemence. But he was the worst type: unable to commit
himself to the practice while advocating its employment by others.
If you asked him why was religion good, he would have waxed
on concerning its good RESULTS. He said nothing about the inherent
nature of religion, its tenets, its view of Mankind's destiny,
or anything else of substance. Lasch was a social engineer of
the derided Marxist type: if it works, if it molds the masses,
if it keeps them "in limits", subservient - use it. Religion
worked wonders in this respect. But Lasch himself was above
his own laws - he even made it a point not to write God with
a capital "G", an act of outstanding "courage". Schiller wrote
about the "disenchantment of the world", the disillusionment
which accompanies secularism - a real sign of true courage,
according to Nietzsche. Religion is a powerful weapon in the
arsenal of those who want to make people feel good about themselves,
their lives and the world, in general. Not so Lasch:
".the spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the
very essence of religion... (anyone with) a proper understanding
of religion. (would not regard it as) a source of intellectual
and emotional security (but as) ...a challenge to complacency
There is no hope or consolation even in religion. It is good
only for the purposes of social engineering.
In this particular respect, Lasch has undergone a major transformation.
In "The New Radicalism in America" (1965), he decried religion
as a source of obfuscation.
"The religious roots of the progressive doctrine" - he wrote
- were the source of "its main weakness". These roots fostered
an anti-intellectual willingness to use education "as a means
of social control" rather than as a basis for enlightenment.
The solution was to blend Marxism and the analytic method of
Psychoanalysis (very much as Herbert Marcuse has done - q.v.
"Eros and Civilization" and "One Dimensional Man").
In an earlier work ("American Liberals and the Russian Revolution",
1962) he criticized liberalism for seeking "painless progress
towards the celestial city of consumerism". He questioned the
assumption that "men and women wish only to enjoy life with
minimum effort". The liberal illusions about the Revolution
were based on a theological misconception. Communism remained
irresistible for "as long as they clung to the dream of an earthly
paradise from which doubt was forever banished".
In 1973, a mere decade later, the tone is different ("The World
of Nations", 1973). The assimilation of the Mormons, he says,
was "achieved by sacrificing whatever features of their doctrine
or ritual were demanding or difficult... (like) the conception
of a secular community organized in accordance with religious
The wheel turned a full cycle in 1991 ("The True and Only Heaven:
Progress and its Critics"). The petite bourgeois at least are
"unlikely to mistake the promised land of progress for the true
and only heaven".
In "Heaven in a Heartless world" (1977) Lasch criticized the
"substitution of medical and psychiatric authority for the authority
of parents, priests and lawgivers". The Progressives, he complained,
identify social control with freedom. It is the traditional
family - not the socialist revolution - which provides the best
hope to arrest "new forms of domination". There is latent strength
in the family and in its "old fashioned middle class morality".
Thus, the decline of the family institution meant the decline
of romantic love (!?) and of "transcendent ideas in general",
a typical Laschian leap of logic.
Even art and religion ("The Culture of Narcissism", 1979), "historically
the great emancipators from the prison of the Self... even sex...
(lost) the power to provide an imaginative release".
It was Schopenhauer who wrote that art is a liberating force,
delivering us from our miserable, decrepit, dilapidated Selves
and transforming our conditions of existence. Lasch - forever
a melancholy - adopted this view enthusiastically. He supported
the suicidal pessimism of Schopenhauer. But he was also wrong.
Never before was there an art form more liberating than the
cinema, THE art of illusion. The Internet introduced a transcendental
dimension into the lives of all its users. Why is it that transcendental
entities must be white-bearded, paternal and authoritarian?
What is less transcendental in the Global Village, in the Information
Highway or, for that matter, in Steven Spielberg?
The Left, thundered Lasch, had "chosen the wrong side in the
cultural warfare between 'Middle America' and the educated or
half educated classes, which have absorbed avant-garde ideas
only to put them at the service of consumer capitalism".
In "The Minimal Self" (1984) the insights of traditional religion
remained vital as opposed to the waning moral and intellectual
authority of Marx, Freud and the like. The meaningfulness of
mere survival is questioned: "Self affirmation remains a possibility
precisely to the degree that an older conception of personality,
rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions, has persisted alongside
a behavioral or therapeutic conception". "Democratic Renewal"
will be made possible through this mode of self- affirmation.
The world was rendered meaningless by experiences such as Auschwitz,
a "survival ethic" was the unwelcome result. But, to Lasch,
Auschwitz offered "the need for a renewal of religious faith...
for collective commitment to decent social conditions... (the
survivors) found strength in the revealed word of an absolute,
objective and omnipotent creator... not in personal 'values'
meaningful only to themselves". One can't help being fascinated
by the total disregard for facts displayed by Lasch, flying
in the face of logotherapy and the writings of Victor Frankel,
the Auschwitz survivor.
"In the history of civilization... vindictive gods give way
to gods who show mercy as well and uphold the morality of loving
your enemy. Such a morality has never achieved anything like
general popularity, but it lives on, even in our own, enlightened
age, as a reminder both of our fallen state and of our surprising
capacity for gratitude, remorse and forgiveness by means of
which we now and then transcend it."
He goes on to criticize the kind of "progress" whose culmination
is a "vision of men and women released from outward constraints".
Endorsing the legacies of Jonathan Edwards, Orestes Brownson,
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, William James, Reinhold
Niebuhr and, above all, Martin Luther King, he postulated an
alternative tradition, "The Heroic Conception of Life" (an admixture
of Brownson's Catholic Radicalism and early republican lore):
"...a suspicion that life was not worth living unless it was
lived with ardour, energy and devotion".
A truly democratic society will incorporate diversity and a
shared commitment to it - but not as a goal unto itself. Rather
as means to a "demanding, morally elevating standard of conduct".
In sum: "Political pressure for a more equitable distribution
of wealth can come only from movements fired with religious
purpose and a lofty conception of life". The alternative, progressive
optimism, cannot withstand adversity: "The disposition properly
described as hope, trust or wonder... three names for the same
state of heart and mind - asserts the goodness of life in the
face of its limits. It cannot be deflated by adversity". This
disposition is brought about by religious ideas (which the Progressives
"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 once signifies man's submission
to necessity and enables him to transcend it..."
Martin Luther King was a great man because "(He) also spoke
the language of his own people (in addition to addressing the
whole nation - SV), which incorporated their experience of hardship
and exploitation, yet affirmed the rightness of a world full
of unmerited hardship... (he drew strength from) a popular religious
tradition whose mixture of hope and fatalism was quite alien
Lasch said that this was the First deadly Sin of the civil rights
movement. It insisted that racial issues be tackled "with arguments
drawn from modern sociology and from the scientific refutation
of social porejudice" - and not on moral (read: religious) grounds.
So, what is left to provide us with guidance? Opinion polls.
Lasch failed to explain to us why he demonized this particular
phenomenon. Polls are mirrors and the conduct of polls is an
indication that the public (whose opinion is polled) is trying
to get to know itself better. Polls are an attempt at quantified,
statistical self-awareness (nor are they a modern phenomenon).
Lasch should have been happy: at last proof that Americans adopted
his views and decided to know themselves. To have criticized
this particular instrument of "know thyself" implied that Lasch
believed that he had privileged access to more information of
superior quality or that he believed that his observations tower
over the opinions of thousands of respondents and carry more
weight. A trained observer would never have succumbed to such
vanity. There is a fine line between vanity and oppression,
fanaticism and the grief that is inflicted upon those that are
subjected to it.
This is Lasch's greatest error: there is an abyss between narcissism
and self love, being interested in oneself and being obsessively
preoccupied with oneself. Lasch confuses the two. The price
of progress is growing self-awareness and with it growing pains
and the pains of growing up. It is not a loss of meaning and
hope - it is just that pain has a tendency to push everything
to the background. Those are constructive pains, signs of adjustment
and adaptation, of evolution. America has no inflated, megalomaniac,
grandiose ego. It never built an overseas empire, it is made
of dozens of ethnic immigrant groups, it strives to learn, to
emulate. Americans do not lack empathy - they are the foremost
nation of volunteers and also professes the biggest number of
(tax deductible) donation makers. Americans are not exploitative
- they are hard workers, fair players, Adam Smith-ian egoists.
They believe in Live and Let Live. They are individualists and
they believe that the individual is the source of all authority
and the universal yardstick and benchmark. This is a positive
philosophy. Granted, it led to inequalities in the distribution
of income and wealth. But then other ideologies had much worse
outcomes. Luckily, they were defeated by the human spirit, the
best manifestation of which is still democratic capitalism.
The clinical term "Narcissism" was abused by Lasch in his books.
It joined other words mistreated by this social preacher. The
respect that this man gained in his lifetime (as a social scientist
and historian of culture) makes one wonder whether he was right
in criticizing the shallowness and lack of intellectual rigor
of American society and of its elites.
Compliments of Sam Vaknin who is the author
of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited" and "After the
Rain - How the West Lost the East". He is a columnist in "Central
Europe Review", United Press International (UPI) and InternetContent.net
and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories
in The Open Directory, Suite101, Go.com and searcheurope.com.
He is the Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.
His web site:
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