on christopher lasch’s underappreciated mid-career essays & the future of radical social criticism.
I used to wonder sometimes, bicycling to work at Northwestern University, which of the suburban houses I was passing in the leafy suburb of Evanston, Illinois, was the former home of Christopher Lasch. Lasch taught at Northwestern from 1966 to 1970. I have since learned from Lasch’s biographer Eric Miller precisely where the historian and social critic, who eventually settled at the University of Rochester for the duration of his career, lived (for the record, it was roughly where I suspected). These bike rides took on a symbolic quality for me. Finding the home, the root, of Lasch’s work—and also discovering a way to be at home with his work myself—became much on my mind over the last year as I worked intensively on an essay about “Lasch as social critic” for the wonderful print magazine The Point.
Lasch is a complicated figure, dismissed on the right for never quite completely abandoning a radical position, yet also condemned on the left for his seemingly conservative critique of progress and liberation in all forms. In my essay, I hoped to lift Lasch out of this vice-grip of clunky left or right, liberal or reactionary, categories. My hope was to do so by returning to the essays he wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Lasch resided in the very place I now work.
Lasch actually didn’t much like his time at Northwestern. The university “has no political life at all,” he complained to his much beloved parents, the Pulitzer Prize-winning liberal newspaper editorial columnist Robert Lasch and the philosopher Zora Schaupp Lasch. Its History Department was “not a department at all” but rather “the kiddie corner, where the department is largely controlled by the bag-lunch and basketball set—a more obnoxious collection of young fogeys would be hard to find” (quoted in Miller’s Hope in a Scattered Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, p. 154). Yet despite his alienation from Northwestern, it was during these years that he wrote some of his most engaged, subtle, and now underappreciated work.
To get to that work required thinking more broadly about Lasch’s entire career. And this was something that my editors at The Point urged me to do as we engaged in the extensive back and forth commentary and revisions of the magazine’s editorial process (as an aside, is there no greater and no more unsung role than the editor in contemporary scholarly life? Should we not be pushing for the recultivation of editing, a dying art, in these times of the permanent crisis of the humanities?). So my essay, which began as a kind of “insider baseball” effort to get existing fans of Lasch to pay more attention to the lesser-known work of his middle career, turned into something bigger and, I hope, more accessible and appealing to a wider audience of readers. It became an exploration of Lasch’s larger lines of thinking across his career as they relate to the contemporary possibilities and problems for radical social criticism.
To those larger lines of thinking then. Lasch is most famous, if remembered at all, as the author of The Culture of Narcissism, a curmudgeonly and difficult screed from the late 1970s that, in an unlikely turn of events, made it to the American bestseller list. Narcissism lambasted the structures of power in American life, most especially consumer capitalism but also, more controversially, the professional experts in the welfare state, for depriving Americans of the resources to build strong internal character and, from that development of the inner self, create autonomous and thriving families and communities. In its search for the crisis of civic life in post-60s America, this was a book that took seriously the psychoanalytic understanding of narcissism. Which is to say that Lasch did not mean the common usage of the word to mean self-absorption, but rather he referred to its more classic, formal definition: the inability to distinguish between self and world (Narcissus’s own plight when he could only see his own reflection in a pool of water). Not unlike a contemporary thinker of Lasch’s working in a very different vein—Michel Foucault—and not entirely unconnected from the Frankfurt School critique of Enlightenment rationality and modernity—best articulated by Horkheimer and Adorno—Lasch wrote specifically in the US context of the ripping away of the boundaries around the self so that the market and the state could expand their influence over everyday Americans.
With its critique of structural power as it manifested in American cultural and intellectual life,Narcissism carried forward a number of Lasch’s concerns from his breakthrough 1965 book The New Radicalism in America, which explored the emergence of intellectuals as a new status group in the US over the first half of the twentieth century. The “intellectual as social type,” as Lasch put it, conflated cultural rebellion against a parental Victorianism with political efficacy in a modern, industrializing America. This, Lasch argued, paradoxically added a debilitating dose of anti-intellectualism to the intellectual role and replaced clear thinking with either romanticizations of the lower echelons of society or a coddling up to institutions of power in the name of “action.”
Lasch would have none of this, and his work grew at once more magisterial and more bitter after the success of The Culture of Narcissism in the late 1970s. At the end of his life (he died of cancer in 1994), Lasch released two books: his magnum opus True and Only Heaven, which analyzed the problematic ideal of “progress” in the United States, and The Revolt of the Elites, a clever transformation of José Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses into a polemical critique of upper-class managerial professionals, who Lasch claimed had utterly lost touch with what mattered in shared civic life by embracing an unmoored drive for personal success. He did not go so far as to call these new elites “latte-drinking liberals” or “bobos in paradise,” but he might as well have.
Against the upper-classes, Lasch sought to resuscitate the late-19th century populist movement’s interest in religious callings, the cultivation of republican selfhood, and the embrace of limits. For sustenance and inspiration, he turned to what he took to be the gritty but resigned attitudes of the existing lower middle class, inceasingly in tatters then and only more ragged today than when he wrote his last books. It was an unlikely turn of events for a thinker who had, in The New Radicalism, thoroughly critiqued intellectuals for their romanticizations of the common man in America. And together with Lasch’s rather tin ear for the range of positions articulated within second wave feminism, it undercut what made his work so powerful.
Lasch’s relationship to women’s liberation is particularly fascinating and something my essay did not have space to explore fully. By the 1970s, Lasch increasingly did not approve of said liberation. This was not because he wanted to keep women in their places, or some such nonsense, but rather because he viewed all liberation as a bad move for building a sustainable radical movement for all people. To him, the move toward liberation, untethered from any actual structural transformation of American life, fed right back in to the ideologies and operations of capitalism and professional-managerial domination since these had no problem with liberation per se. Indeed, the awful but brilliant perception Lasch had was that capitalism and managerial-professional expertise both fed on the elusive search for utopia. Of course, certain second wave feminists were already saying this, and Lasch seemed to ignore them (see Ellen Willis’s amazing takedown of Lasch’s posthumous book, Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism, published as “Backlash,” Los Angeles Times Book Review, 12 January 1997, for a good example of how his work missed the mark with second wave feminists). Nonetheless, the recent debates over Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement bespeak much of what Lasch noticed back in the late 1970s and thereafter (see, for instance, Kate Losse, “Feminism’s Tipping Point: Who Wins from Leaning in?”, or bell hooks, “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In”). So even in the case of women’s liberation, where Lasch seemed somewhat less attuned in his thinking, his work remains relevant.
As someone who has written a book that takes seriously the moments of liberation people felt, and then grappled with, when they experienced rock music in the 1960s, I found Lasch’s critique of all forms of liberation a profoundly useful challenge to confront. For Lasch, liberation was inextricably tied to his dismissal of modern liberalism as a whole. To Lasch’s mind, the modern liberal search for technocratic progress and perfection led to such madnesses as the Vietnam War, with all the social, ethical, and environmental degradation that it not only encompassed but also came to symbolize. At first glance, his rejection of liberalism seemed to make Lasch yet another onetime liberal “mugged by reality,” as onetime Trotskyist turned neoconservative Irving Kristol once remarked of his shift rightward. But Lasch was different. His interest in conservatism stemmed from a radical position that he never forsook. Even though one could easily argue that True and Only Heaven and Revolt of the Elites succumbed to the very misconceptions that Lasch noticed among intellectuals in New Radicalism, he remained an extraordinarily subtle and clear-eyed thinker (for instance I am leaving out all the nuance found in books such as Haven in a Heartless World and The Minimal Self, which might be read as a precursor to Culture of Narcissism and a sequel to that most famous of Lasch’s books). Lasch’s prose had a way of sympathetically but forcefully dissecting arguments and exposing their inner workings in the name of pushing their best ideas and intentions forward while rejecting where they went wrong.
Lasch himself, in his book reviews, was a kind of social critic as editor, something that made me appreciate all the more the back and forth with the editors of The Point concerning my essay about him. There was less a shrill romanticism in his work than a deep engagement with troubling issues, viewed from a lifelong commitment to speaking truth to power in the search for a radicalism that might not simply explode in paroxysms of rage but rather create the conditions to sustain a common good life for all.
That said, what was dismaying about the arc of Lasch’s career to me was that while he never became a neoconservative, by the end of his career he did back away from his most ambitious efforts to write historically-informed social criticism. It was in the aftermath of New Radicalism‘s success in 1965 but before his turn to a more angry and perhaps brittle declensionist tone by the time of Culture of Narcissism that Lasch sought to imagine and embody a different role for the radical social critic than what he had seen in the thinkers featured in New Radicalism and to which he would later himself fall prey. In these years, he had not yet thrown in the towel, as it were, on the possibilities of the emergence of a vital radical politics that arose through the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements as well as the counterculture. He never entirely embraced them, but he wrote in conversation with them. He was, during these years, one and the same time a penetrating analyst of the liberal establishment, a firm opponent to the startling rise of reactionary right-wing politics, and an independent but critical ally of the younger New Left.
Eric Miller, Lasch’s aforementioned biographer, portrays this period as a kind of lost, searching time for Lasch, but to me it is when he did some of his most incredible work. As the historian Jackson Lears, someone who I think of as taking up the mantle of Lasch’s approach, wrote in a survey of Lasch’s career, “It is difficult to recapture the spell that Lasch cast over a generation of historians and cultural critics who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s” when his writing “seemed to light up the whole dreary landscape of debate during the Vietnam War.” This was because, as Lears puts it, “In a time when public discourse was dominated by the bland horrors of ‘tough-minded’ technocratic liberalism, the increasingly mindless liberationism of the New Left and return of the diabolical clown Nixon and his retinue of thugs, Lasch was a sharp, sustaining presence in American intellectual life” (Jackson Lears, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” The New Republic, 2 October 1995, 42). Engaged in efforts to foster a more robust and connected intellectual life connected to social democratic politics during this period, Lasch wrote essay after essay that refused to retreat to the more fatalistic and exhausted positions that came to dominate his later work. It was these essays, book reviews and short pieces reworked into the two collections The Agony of the American Left and World of Nations, that I wanted to recover and highlight in my essay for The Point.
These essay collections are today more relevant, more applicable to contemporary quandaries than the more famous early and late books of Lasch’s career. His earliest work seems from a bygone era, when Cold War liberalism, with its doomed mix of welfare programs and hardline foreign policy, seemed to be the only game in town; his later work, while still illuminating of the problems with technocratic, managerial liberal thinking, does not speak to the outrageous attacks from the right on the any sense of the common good whatsoever. To me it’s the middle period Lasch that has increasingly been ignored when it comes to this social critic’s legacy. Reading Marx and exploring the cultural Marxism of Gramsci, E.P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams, arguing with and working alongside fellow radical US historians Eugene Genovese (before he himself went neoconservative), James Weinstein, and the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, engaged with the possibilities and the problems of social democracy, paying attention to the student movement and other dimensions of the New Left without fawning over their growing militant vanguardism, honoring the best aspects of populist, working class, and even bourgeois thought and practice without turning a blind eye to the shortcomings of these positions, and curious about what the late Tony Judt has called, more recently, the “rethinking of the state” rather than its wholesale dismissal—this is the Lasch I found the most compelling.
Paradoxically, the less definitive mid-career work of Lasch should be understood, to my mind, as the most long-lasting. Its searching quality, its empathetic but fierce scrutiny of ideas relevant to pressing matters of the day, its lack of polemics or set judgments, its reflexivity instead of simple reflex responses—in sum, its evidence of thought in motion, forceful but open to subtle shifts and cross-cut lines of possibility in the thinking of others, makes it more significant, in its odd way, than Lasch’s more realized arguments and positions earlier and later in his life. Reflecting (non-narcissistically I hope) on Lasch’s own reflections during this mid-career period offers contemporary social critics a way to think through our own dilemmas of how to comment, react, and respond to the world around us. During the years when he wrote uncomfortably between radicalism and conservatism, when he began to sketch out a new combination of the two that defied existing categories of thought, the time when he did not just see the failings of liberalism everywhere he looked, this to me seems to be the Lasch most worth paying attention to now. To do anything less is to miss Lasch’s own quest to turn to the past not as a mirror on the present, but as a resource for confronting current crises.
See an excerpt of my essay on “Looking Back: Christopher Lasch and the Role of the Social Critic,” in the Fall 2013 issue of The Point. And subscribe, if you can, to this great journal of independent thought and social criticism.
Additional comments from the S-USIH website:
Michael Kramer on November 8, 2013 at 1:18 pm said:
I laughed when I read your comment because I added the “neo” at the last moment to my description of Genovese. I originally simply had “conservative,” and I should have kept it at that. I suppose we could argue about whether neoconservative should also be applied to the abandonment of democratic faith in the domestic arena (or lack of any faith in the first place) among a broader swath of thinkers from Leo Strauss to someone such as Genovese. But point taken. It should also be said that Genovese was never a pro-market kind of Ayn Rand libertarian type. His conservative turn grew out of a continued rejection of capitalism. Can we say (whether we “neo-fy” it or not) that Genovese’s thinking came to share with other conservatives (reactionaries?) an embrace of hierarchy and a forsaking of any sort of democratic credo.
Maybe I should have written “neoconfederate” for Genovese? I do think that there are big differences between Lasch’s conservative turn and Genovese’s. And they go back right back to the question of democratic faith. As he increasingly despaired of contemporary American politics in the 1970s and 80s, Genovese embraced the history of the southern aristocracy and the structures of the Catholic church; Lasch, by contrast, went to Midwestern populism and pre-Russian Revolution socialism. Maybe, in this sense, they both just went home to what they knew: for Genevose, the conservative Catholicism of his youth; for Lasch, Midwestern populism (via the progressivism of his parents?).
But that oversimplifies the sophistication of their thinking, and especially the searching, seeking quality of Lasch’s work. When it came to democratic belief, I think to the end of his life (and True and Only Heaven still appeals to me enormously as a reader; what a magisterial book, even if I hear the voice of Jim Livingston critiquing its moments of nostalgic anti-modernism when I read it), Lasch was still a radical of sorts (though not a revolutionary). Genovese, not so much. He turned to hierarchy, elites. Or perhaps turned is the wrong word, since the sectarian NYC communism world with which he grew up was never opposed to vanguard of the proletariat type elite manipulations in the first place.
Lasch, by comparison, always opposed vanguardism, progress, liberation. Faith was where he wound up at the end of his life. And I think that included a faith in the necessary but difficult project of discovering a democratic politics and culture that might flourish (as for economics, he never abandoned his democratic socialist critique of capitalism and consumerism).
One way to pursue this difficult project of democratic investigation, Lasch believed, was to take seriously the recognition of limits and imperfections as articulated in the worldview and “common sense” of everyday working Americans (maybe a romanticization there as I noted in my post?). America wasn’t all optimism and jeremiad redemption narratives, he thought. It was more than that. The democratic politics and culture in the US also required a reconceptualization of assumptions about the nature of historical time itself.
Lasch’s goal, never stated but to me always an undercurrent in his work, was to alter his, and by extension our, understanding and our feel for the temporal. He wanted to step away from liberal Enlightenment assumptions about progress. The belief in forward motion toward future liberation was actually more than just wrong; Lasch thought it was detrimental to liberal Enlightenment ideals themselves. Liberalism ate itself—and all of us with it (shades of Foucault here, I think; Lasch in fact reviews Foucault on asylums in World of Nations).
Instead of progress toward the future, Lasch asked what it might mean to focus on the relationship between the past (especially the failed and imperfect past–the populist movement and homegrown US socialism being two rather vivid and depressing models of said failure and imperfection) and the present. It was this recasting of our understanding of history itself—from a march forward to glory to something more poised in the balance between what we could learn from the past and what the present required—that to me seems to most of all distinguish Lasch from Genovese. Both came to embrace the need for limits instead of the endless, and increasingly shrill, call for liberation. But Lasch grounded this need in the democratic politics of 19th century American populism (while also pointing, fittingly, to its limits: xenophobia, sexism, conspiratorial thinking) while Genovese turned to quite different sources for his notion of limits, ones that were far less grounded in democratic hope.
In this sense, I would even make the argument that Lasch was not an antimodernist (he certainly made a big deal that he was not a communitarian during the liberal-communitarian debates of the 1980s). Lasch always writes that he does not want to romanticize the past (nostalgia at its worst being, as he points out, but the flip side to the obsession with progress). Well, he did get quite close to nostalgia and romanticization at times. But let us honor his efforts, as a social critic, to model an effort to draw upon the past accurately and critically most of all to make sense of the present.
I think in the end his was a search for and an argument about the question of what kind of modernism we might desire (or even achieve): one that blinded us to the failures of so-called liberal society by shrugging them off as the necessary ills and byproducts of progress, or one that grounded us in a different understanding of history, of time, itself.
Thanks for the chance to work through some of this via a comparison of Lasch and Genovese (sorry to go on for so long)! I welcome your continued quibbles (or vast disagreements) of course. As well as those of others. There are certainly some Lasch experts lurking out there, yes? Weigh in, please!
Michael Kramer on November 11, 2013 at 12:24 pm said:
Hi Dan —
I agree with you about the overlap of Genovese and Lasch’s work. A particular form of modern corporate capitalism always remained the culprit of social ills in their respective works. But what they proposed as the places from which to critique and perhaps even alter these forces diverged. Those differences, to me, matter immensely.
Even if those among us are less ready to accept their blindness to the kinds of critical (and even liberation) struggles occurring within or below or even through corporate capitalism, their different perspectives on resistance to the forces of the capitalism market seem important to delineate.
Thank you for your wonderful research and comments on Lasch’s ambivalent move from Northwestern to U of Rochester. For those drawn to how Lasch’s work connected to his life, this stuff is fascinating.
Why are some of us so interested in Lasch the man as well as Lasch’s work anyway? Because his own social criticism, while not confessional at all, seems driven in so many silent or whispered ways about his own life. One is even tempted to say that his work, fittingly for a critic interested in psychoanalytic theory, sublimated his private experiences into social criticism. In this way, we might understand Culture of Narcissism as written as a kind of self-warning, an effort by Lasch to resist the very forces of self-realization, self-fulfillment, self-actualization that he felt around him, or even in him? I wonder.
This line of thinking and your comments led me back to an observation I had when reading Lasch for the article I wrote. Might we actually call him a “private intellectual” or better said an “intellectual of the private” instead of a public intellectual? I’m being a bit playful here, but let me explain.
I think what you so convincingly demonstrate by exploring the influence of Ennul, and what your dissertation will vividly show us (from what you’ve told me about it), is that one of Lasch’s great insights, almost obsessions, was the erosion of a certain vision of private life: independent but collegial, full of love and also struggle, having its limits but sustaining people too. He wanted to defend this vision of private life against its weird alter-ego: the emergence of a modern “narcissism” that put the focus on shallow self-realization delivered by consumerism and the state instead of keeping its hands off a more autonomous space for the development of the self. In blunt, Warren Susmanian terms, Lasch wanted to recover the 19th century ideal of “character” and defend against the new imperative of having a “personality.”
For Lasch, the root of a more sane and sustaining public culture and common life had to start with a renewed understanding of the private sphere. This focus on the private sphere was what left him grappling with the challenges of second wave feminism as well as certain strands of countercultural engagement. But it also is what remains so intriguing about his work. At times he seems to merely fit feminist and countercultural thought into his needed categories of analysis: they are merely specters of true radicalism, they are just complicit in the corporate capitalism that is, for Lasch, at the root of social ills (see comment above to Dan). On the other hand, there is something quite compelling (dare we even say countercultural?) about Lasch’s insistence that another private life was possible in the US, one that might be radically different from the urge to achieve a “self-actualization” that seemed at first to oppose corporate capitalism’s “mass society” when in fact it was in league with it. For instance, I find Lasch enormously productive today when we confront the rhetoric and sheer economic and political power of the “privatization” camp (see Jackson Lears’s new review of Diane Ravitch’s book on public education, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/book-reviews/reform-reform).
One last thought on your mini-essay. Is there not a funny irony to Lasch’s application of Ennul given the current state of the US automotive industry?! I think his analysis still holds. Only now we need to substitute finance or perhaps tech companies for automobiles? Or maybe it goes deeper than that, given the strange capacities of modern (postmodern?) US corporate capitalism to colonize, through niche marketing strategies, even the efforts to establish DIY outposts of independent private life? Is Etsy.com a realization of Lasch’s call for a return to crafts(wo)manship and independent private life or is it just another sweater with “narcissism” woven into its wool and “capitalism” coursing through its fiber optic wires?
Thanks again for your comments and the wonderful mini-essay. I for one really look forward to reading more of your work on Lasch!