Christopher Lasch, Populist Prophet
Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, Eric Miller, Eerdmans, $32
By David S. Brown
No American intellectual shaped the terms of post-1960s cultural criticism quite like Christopher Lasch. Heir to a dominant liberalism that promised all things to all peoples, he struck instead a pessimistic pose denouncing the noxious alchemy of capitalism, consumption, and the growing authority of the “therapeutic professions.” The subtitle of his surprising 1979 bestseller, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, resonated with a premonitory power in a nation reeling from the successive shocks of Vietnam, Watergate, and economic downturn. Nestled uncomfortably between the buoyant promises of the Kennedy ’60s and the Reagan ’80s, the “Me Decade” gave every indication of portending a long era of decline. Those edgy days provoked from Lasch a series of demanding and controversial books that remain touchstones of modern social thought.
Today our nation struggles to make sense of its own age of anxiety. From the 9/11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath to the more recent economic recession, the twin pillars of America’s superpower supremacy –- military and financial might –- have been called into question. Though conceived under different circumstances, Lasch’s prescription for, as he once called it, “psychic survival in troubled times,” still retains a certain explanatory potential. His awareness of the environmental and economic boundaries that faced his generation –- and confront our own –- continues to tremor through the public conversation. What a timely moment for a Lasch biography to appear.
Geneva College historian Eric Miller has written an intelligent and engaging Lasch life-story. Under construction for a decade, the book shows consummate authorial care in regard to its impressive research, judicious argumentation, and balanced interpretations. The focus here is appropriately on Lasch’s ideas, their roots and reception. Biographical material — the vicissitudes of youth, education, professional and family life -– is structured to add depth and shading to the narrative. The only notable break from this approach is Miller’s visible interest in Lasch’s religiosity. He pointedly if not altogether clearly regards his subject’s cultural thinking as possessing a “predictably Christian quality.” If the phrase is meant to evoke a category of dissent along with, say, populism, to mention a Lasch passion, then it would seem to have real meaning. But if there is a deeper desire to enlist Lasch among the believers the issue becomes more problematic.
Lasch, after all, found consilience in a secular school of modern decline-minded thinkers that included charter alumni Oswald Spengler and Henry Adams. The former condemned the “civilizational” phase of history enjoined by the 19th-century West, an era characterized by the ascent of money and industry at the expense of an affirming artistic and architectural anima. Adams’s spiritual sensibility revolved around the cultural, aesthetic, and literary tastes of 12th-century Franco Catholicism. He reveled in soaring Gothic cathedrals, a mystical Virgin, and multi-kingdom crusaders assembling in common quest. Approaching the past in a dialectical fashion, he saw Christianity inevitably succumbing to a more powerful capitalist future. Lasch later adopted the weighty outcome of these arguments, infusing them with a sophisticated mix of Marxism and Freudianism that provocatively confronted a dominant progressive faith anchored in the presumed superiority of the American economy, family, and foreign policy. He rejected these propositions with élan and intellectual vigor, leaving in his wake a complex and still debated legacy.
Lasch’s journey started on the Left. Nebraska born just a generation removed from the Bryan Populism that once ruled the region, he seemed congenitally suited to question the emerging liberal-metropolitan nexus. This au courant ideological arrangement he observed first-hand while studying at Harvard and Columbia under the prolific public intellectuals Perry Miller, Richard Hofstadter, and Henry Steele Commager. As if in reaction, his first important book, The New Radicalism in America 1889-1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type, broke decisively from the mandarin mood of postwar academic thought which in ways large and small elevated the expert, the technician, and the specialist over the working-class. Lasch shook off, in other words, the liberal fetish for seeing popular movements within America as corrosively tied to McCarthyism, anti-intellectualism, or even fascism.
Turning this idea upside down, he argued in The New Radicalism that the progressive gentry rather than the backward masses endangered American democracy. Urban reformers like Jane Addams, he insisted, merely adapted the agrarian anti-capitalist personality types in their ranks to the deadening regimentation of urban-industrial life. John Dewey’s educational ideas had much the same impact. For a rising generation of scholars critical of America’s military-industrial complex, Lasch’s thesis struck a powerful chord. For wasn’t it the “best and the brightest” of their own era that pushed the U.S. into Vietnam, paved the way for the imperial presidency, and gave only late and lackluster support to the civil rights movement, the greatest democratic crusade of the century? The left embraced Lasch, The New Radicalism made his name, and the major New York publications coveted his byline.
Relations between Lasch and the Left would never be so good again. In the 1970s his work began to attract the interest of cultural conservatives. In a parcel of provocative essays and several books, he extended his cutting analysis of the progressive personality type to the liberal welfare state. In the case of each, he insisted, the apparatus of the helping professions –- marriage counselors, child-welfare agencies, social workers, life coaches, psychotherapists –- chipped away at the autonomy of families and local communities in the quest to eradicate Victorian restraints on educated cosmopolitans. Extended meditations on the presumptively negative impact of dual-income parentage typically followed.
Skyrocketing divorce rates and boomer guilt gave his arguments both an urgency and an alert audience. Feminists denounced his views as patriarchal claptrap, a cranky reaction to an emancipatory women’s movement. Lasch countered by calling for mutual sacrifice between the sexes. The “crisis” of family life demanded fresh and thoughtful solutions, he insisted, for the only clear-cut winner in the severance of separate home and work spheres had been the capitalist system.
Approaching these arguments selectively, and eager to enlist a noted public intellectual on their side, conservatives cleaved to Lasch with the kind of uncritical devotion once practiced by the Left. It was an incomplete embrace that always elicited an at arm’s length reply. In response to an interviewer’s query, “do you see yourself as in some sense a conservative or at least supporting conservative points of view,” he demurred: “I realize that some of the arguments I put forth can be very easily put to conservative purposes. It makes me very uneasy.”
The case of Lasch’s response to capitalism underlines his fundamental disagreement with the Right, and Miller offers a particularly strong and useful overview of this engagement. The boom market of the Reagan years widened the income gap between wealthy and poor while making the vulgar case that America’s “greatness” was in some vital and indivisible way tied to its consumer kingdom. While many conservatives condemned the post-New Deal bureaucratic state famously sketched out by the political theorist James Burnham, Lasch pinpointed a more mendacious enemy. He arraigned
dyed-in-the-wool Burnhamites who think that everything that’s wrong with this country can be attributed to the managerial revolution. Capitalism doesn’t exist in America, they say. Not a very helpful assumption from which to begin it seems to me. After a decade of Reaganism, everything is worse than before, and everything is worse not because the managers have inflicted their utopian designs on the rest of us but because old-fashioned capitalist acquisitiveness seems to have made such an unexpected comeback and won such a happy new lease on life.
Throughout the ’80s, Lasch worked on an immense reclamation project — an original fusion of cultural conservatism and anti-capitalism. Hitherto he had sampled a host of imported ideas including Marxism, psychoanalysis, and Frankfurt School critical theory. Now he sought to accentuate American sources skeptical of the American Exceptionalism project. The result, The True and Only Heaven), attacked the idea of progress as a false god worshiped by a fallen people. Filled with an eclectic range of thinkers, theologians, and philosophers –- from Jonathan Edwards to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Martin Luther King Jr. –- Lasch’s work offered a tradition of austere republicanism and civic-mindedness as alternative to the nation’s psychically crippling mania for big, better, best.
Miller argues persuasively that at this late stage in his life Lasch had circled back to the populistic politics once mother’s milk to his native Nebraska. This insight goes some way in explaining why Lasch remains relevant to both Right and Left. Conservatives can embrace populism’s anti-elitism and Main Street accent as attributes of a culturally homogeneous constituency justly suspicious of big government. The Left extols populism’s critique of a utopic free enterprise in a world enframed by ecological boundaries.
In regard to ideological symmetry, Miller has placed his subject right-of-center. His title, Hope in a Scattering Time, plays upon Lasch’s dismissal of an easy “optimism” (the hobby-horse of liberals) for a hard earned “hope” enlisted to counter the prevailing trivialization of public life with a republic of “proprietorship and virtue.” There is an interesting and quintessentially American theme at work here. For akin to Edwards, Emerson, and King, Lasch called for a new “religion” and wrote in his many books, essays, and think-pieces as a Jeremiah in favor of the revitalization of localism, the promise of civic engagement, and a candid awareness of limits. As a secular thinker contending against both the trippy Age of Aquarius and the quasi-Calvinist prosperity theology that followed, he seemed to have little trouble believing in the wages of sin or the grace of hope.
David Brown is a historian at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. His latest book, Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing was published by the University of Chicago Press last year.
ERIC MILLER REPLIES:
I’m grateful for David S. Brown’s sharp reading of my book, and admire especially his perceptive rendering, both here and in his two excellent books, of the historical context of Lasch’s life and thought. I take exception, though, to his claim that by following the storyline of Lasch’s “religiosity” I have strayed from my main focus on Lasch’s “ideas, their roots and reception,” and particularly with his suspicion that this is motivated by a desire to “enlist” Lasch as a Christian. Following the work of scholars such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Milbank, and James K. A. Smth, I understand intellectual life itself to have religious roots, and believe that secular modernity is, as Smith puts it, “deeply religious and fundamentally theological.” On this view, Spengler, Adams, Adorno, et al. were working out their ideas—about, among other things, politics and religion—within a frame that had been formed decisively, as Patrick Deneen’s compelling book Democratic Faith shows, by religious understandings of the world. At the end of his review Brown acknowledges that Lasch’s work had an explicitly religious dimension yet also describes (enlists?) him as a “secular thinker.” What I in this book am trying to do, among other things, is suggest that the distance between these two, “religiosity” and secularity, is not so far after all.