U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reflections on Christopher Lasch’s Reflections

Today’s guest post comes courtesy of Michael J. Kramer. Apart from his occasional reflections here, Kramer maintains an engaging and robust online presence, writing at Culture Rover, The Republic of Rock Blog, and Issues in Digital History. Check out his other work—and buy his excellent book, The Republic of Rock (or at least make sure your library owns it!). [Note: Post updated 1:10 pm, CST]
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Christopher_LaschI 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 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.

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These reflections are based on Kramer’s work on this article: “Looking Back: Christopher Lasch and the Role of the Social Critic,” The Point, Fall 2013.

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  1. Michael,
    Thank you for this; I really enjoyed the mix of personal reflection and contextualization with which you point us to Lasch’s mid-career work.

    I wonder if you could pick out a few essays from those two volumes that you find particularly useful or more acutely pertinent. My advisor directed me when I was in coursework to “The Moral and Intellectual Rehabilitation of the Ruling Class,” and it has ever since been one of my favorite essays.

  2. Michael–
    Nice essay. Just a quibble–is it really accurate to describe Genovese as turning neoconservative, an appellation usually used to describe former liberals who became Hawkish in foreign policy and anti-statist in domestic welfare policy? Not trying to derail, but it seems like Genovese’s and Lasch’s so-called “conservative” turns were actually marked by a great deal of similarity, not something we would call “neoconservative”.

  3. Andrew — Thanks for your kind words about the essay. I think any of the essays in the second parts of World of Nations—Alternatives to Liberalism and The So-Called Postindustrial Society—are among the most unsung. They are book reviews, but they are so much more than book reviews! I also think Lasch’s take on Harold Cruse, which is reprinted in Agony of the American Left, and which Robert Greene II has recently investigated on this blog, is fascinating for how it grapples with culture, politics, and race through a careful reading of Cruse’s book. More references to all of this in my essay in The Point. — Best, Michael

  4. Dan —

    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. But 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. But it was also 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!

    All best,
    Michael

  5. Hi Michael,

    Although I wouldn’t call myself an expert, I have been lurking quietly as an avid S-USIH blog reader for years. Long time follower, first time poster. I’m also a graduate student in history at the University of Rochester, currently at work on a Lasch project myself.

    Thanks so much for this moving reflection and important analysis. Thanks, too, for so kindly replying to my emails and encouraging me to break my long silence and post something after all these years. One has to (try to) break one’s crippling shyness eventually.

    Two things, then, that I suppose I’d like to throw out in there in connection to your blog.

    First, an interesting story. For as much as Lasch complained about his colleagues as an “obnoxious collection of young fogeys,” when the time finally came to leave Northwestern, he got cold feet. In fact, doubts plagued Lasch for months after he accepted the job in Rochester but still had to finish out his time in Evanston. He second guessed himself so much during the spring and summer of 1970 that–in a move of incredible denial– he hardly bothered pack at all. When the family finally did move themselves out of their Evanston home, they did not settle into their new place in the village of Avon (near Rochester) but instead went on their traditional summer vacation to Vermont. “Utterly exhausted from moving out,” Lasch wrote a friend in July 1970, “and demoralized at the last minute by mounting doubts about why we were moving at all, we simply put everything in a warehouse in Evanston and fled to these rustic parts [in Vermont], where our spirits seem to be slowly mending.” Then, when the family finally returned to gather their possessions they left town unannounced, under the cover of darkness. According to Lasch, “we sneaked out of Evanston without saying goodbye to any of our friends, a procedure that seemed preferable, from a narrowly selfish point of view, to the pain of leave-taking.” Lasch tried to justify these bizarre antics in a letter to his parents, explaining that “We couldn’t face moving in, not just yet… I’d come to have so many misgivings about moving that I even considered, at one point, staying in Evanston and commuting to Rochester next year, and hoping that Northwestern would hire me back the following year.”

    Northwestern almost did. In 1972 his former colleague and Evanston neighbor, George Frederickson, led a campaign to rehire Lasch. When the university officially made the offer, Lasch was sorely tempted (especially because he found life in Rochester so difficult– a story for a different comment) but ultimately declined. “Grateful as I was,” Lasch remarked, “I wasn’t grateful enough to return to a department in which I had never been joyously happy.”

    Secondly, I very much liked your point about Lasch’s middle career being so much more than a transitory phase, and instead a period in which he produced some profound and important social criticism.

    In for a penny, in for a pound. I’d like to share a recent draft of my take on “The Social Thought of Jacques Ellul,” an essay from World of Nations. I apologize in advance that, ripped from context, this excerpt suffers from no small amount of disjointedness. Still, I hope it captures the flavor of Lasch’s reviews as social criticism that Michael mentioned above. Naturally, I’d be delighted for any feedback I might receive from blog readers!

    Here goes:

    Lasch’s “The Social Thought of Jacques Ellul,” written for Katallagete in early 1970, provides a revealing glimpse into his ongoing transformation in the new decade. The piece also forecasted a number of his future directions. On its surface, though, the essay had a simple enough purpose. It introduced French philosopher Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) to a U.S. readership, allowing Lasch to engage his collected works in a long, expository review, as well as to introduce an overlooked figure to an American audience that only recently received English translations of his major works. (Moreover, Lasch chided, most of Ellul’s writings garnered “little notice” in American literary circles). Consequently, Lasch used Ellul both as a prism to explore culture and a vehicle for venturing related social criticism.

    Yet the careful observer can also detect in these pages an excited Lasch discovering a workable model for many of the cultural and political questions he was struggling to answer, an intellectual kindred spirit. On a personal level, Lasch applauded Ellul’s “attempt to anchor moral and cultural perspectives in a hard-headed sociological analysis of modern society” and his general penchant for indulging in the occasional “long excursion into sociology.” Both seemed admirable ambitions to Lasch, who replicated these steps to his own edification throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

    And the similarities did not end there. For the first time, Lasch encountered a radical intellectual dissident, albeit twenty year his elder, whose estrangement from the Left resembled his own. Quoting Ellul’s take on this phenomenon approvingly, he upheld a critical attitude worthy of emulation:
    ‘If I attack the left in its common-places, that does not mean I am against the left. On the contrary, it is because I believe in values that only the left has stated, elucidated, and partially adopted, because the left has sustained the hope of mankind, because the left has engaged in a struggle for justice, that I cannot tolerate the absurdity of the present left.’

    Over time, Lasch borrowed this sentiment to describe his situation; more than that, he was so impressed by Ellul’s position, vis-à-vis the Left, that he practically stole it outright. “Because Ellul does criticize the left, and because he denies the primacy of politics,” Lasch beamed, “many radicals will regard him as a traitor to their cause. The real betrayer, however, is the radical intellectual’s subordination of their own work to political passions.”

    Digging into Ellul’s books from the 1940s through the 1960s, Lasch found even more to recommend (and, a cynic might add, from which to crib shamelessly). The French social theorist posited a defense of the family against the incursions of the state’s ambitions to assume “child-rearing functions.” For Ellul, in their efforts to empower themselves by eroding the autonomy of the home, “the socialized agencies of child-raising” threatened to undermine the great advantages of the parental dynamic. “At this point,” Lasch stressed, “…one has to ask with Ellul whether it is not precisely the conjunction of love and constraint that enables a child to grow up and accept the constraints of adulthood without losing the capacity for love.” Institutions– geared toward furthering an agenda in which “‘the child must learn without pain, that it must have agreeable, seductive work, that it must not even notice that it is working'”– could never match the preparation for a mature adulthood of limits and love as fostered by the family.

    Ellul also supplied Lasch with additional ammunition to fire at some his favorite targets: the counterculture and New Left. More than a little smugly, Lasch interpreted Ellul as a potent confirmation of his long-standing disdain for his radical nemeses. Heaping his usual scorn upon them, Lasch attributed to Ellul the idea that the counterculture and New Left shared several fatal flaws which reduced them to little more than harmless spectacles, momentary blips in a mainstream culture already at work in absorbing them into its fold. When it came to the expressive protest culture of these groups, “[Ellul] sees that such solutions do not seriously menace the existing social order,” Lasch paraphrased. Far from disruptive, “these phenomena, which express the deepest instinctive human passions, have also become totally innocuous.” According to Lasch’s Ellul, the counterculture, takings it cues from “Zen, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, astrology, witchcraft, and the occult” registered only as a source of “‘splendid élan… color, youth, pleasure.'” Purporting to “challenge the technological society, they are in fact supported by it.” The flamboyant cultural display of the hippie movement, as well as its music, poetry, and embrace of alternative lifestyles “merely reaffirm[s], in extreme form, those [values] of the surrounding cultures: subjectivity, the impossibility of verbal communication, salvation through technology (drugs).” Sexual permissiveness, experimentation with drugs and communal living, and trippy poetry and music “offer a diverting escape from social boredom” but were otherwise “harmless.” For Ellul, Lasch observed approvingly: “‘To be sure, they are a bit shocking, but a society held together by boredom is more or less proof against shock.'”

    Laschian subtext aside, “The Social Thought of Jacques Ellul” did more than venerate a European intellectual for certain agreeable resemblances between author and subject. The essay made Ellul the point of ingress for investigating the links between culture and politics during “the cultural crisis of our time,” an age, Lasch noted, in which the idea “that cultural radicalism means that intellectuals should enlist in the proletarian revolution” had been bankrupted by the thwarted upheavals of the 1960s. Additionally, while the failings of radical intellectuals to foment revolution added to the urgency of the present crisis, Ellul considered their failures to have been inevitable all along. “Modern society rushes toward a disaster that only a revolution– ‘a radical transformation of our present civilization’– can prevent,” Lasch drew from Ellul’s books, “yet that the same society is characterized by a ‘profound immobility’ and ‘incapacity for revolution.'” The culture behind political reality, the stronger tissue holding it in place, went on unmolested by would-be revolutionaries of the West, protecting the ‘profound immobility’ of the prevailing order.

    Lasch ultimately saw in Ellul a far-sighted, prophetic figure. Unlike most radical intellectuals, Lasch argued, Ellul rejected “the illusion, so common among modern revolutionaries, that a change in political structures without an attendant spiritual or cultural transformation, will bring about a genuinely democratic society.” Instead, “Ellul is one of the few contemporary radicals fully to grasp the cultural dimensions of the twentieth- century crisis.” His writings, Lasch admired, burned with the glow of a “white heat,” an intensity deserving of a proper hearing.

    Like Foucault but without what Lasch called “Irrationalist” leanings, Ellul paid close attention to the inner-workings of cultural systems– the hidden ways they entrapped and oppressed, the manner in which they dominated those lived within them, closing off alternatives and circumscribing human agency. He conceived a theory of mass civilization that demonstrated how the dominant culture of the status quo perpetuated itself by removing all sources of “tension” and compelling a truly “unitary society.” Cocooned in a culture that discouraged imaginings for better alternatives, Ellul saw a world moving “inexorably toward a bland totalitarianism.” Apart from totalizing political regimes of the past (though the modern state apparatus cooperated nicely with cultural hegemony, since its interests were served), cultural totalitarianism was insidiously less overt in its designs. It consolidated power while offering no discernible dictators to topple, but instead flowed from a complex web of values, traditions, and rituals. Despite its tight grip over society, however, the dominant culture did not offer the sort of stability one might expect. “The most impressive passages in his books,” Lasch asserted about Ellul:
    “are those in which he speaks of people’s helpless bewilderment in the face of mass communications, the assimilation of science to technique, the degradation of art, the collapse of values. He shows how the mass media subject people to a barrage of disconnected and therefore meaningless facts and how this makes critical reflection on politics almost impossible. ‘News succeeds new without ceasing. For instance, in the columns of the newspaper he [modern man] will read one day about an affair which quickly disappears from the paper, and also from the brain of the reader. It is replaced; it is forgotten. A man gets used to living like this, without a present and without a past. He gets used to living in complete incoherence.'”

    In such a culture, where reality is ephemeral, where communications cause only confusion, the majority of people clung stubbornly to “the great ‘explanatory myths'”: narratives of Progress and historical exceptionalism, the sense that the present represented the best of all possible worlds. Such illusions were all the more easily embraced since they offered an escapist alternative to facing the horrors of “bewilderment” directly at their source.

    Genuine radicalism, then, had to cut into the deeper marrow of culture. This was Ellul’s main insight. Culture must first be understood through clear-eyed examination before a democratic revolution could happen (the “framework” Lasch called for in another essay, “From Culture to Politics”). In contrast, the mistake seemingly forever repeated by radical activism, was “that it substitutes an appeal to the emotions for analysis.” Thus Ellul’s insistence, heralded by Lasch, that the truest radicalism “has power only to the extent that it creates a culture suited to the needs of those to whom it is addressed.” Short of that as a plausible goal for a mass movement, Lasch concluded, “Ellul speaks of the need for groups of the faithful to find a way ‘to live on the edge of this totalitarian society.'” In essence, resistance on the small scale, retrenchment to the furthest cliffs of the cultural crisis.

    Explaining his defense of the family and his assault on youthful cultural protests, Ellul argued “that ‘private life itself must be reestablished'” as the basis for fronting a cultural challenge. By this, Lasch clarified, “he means something quite different from the search for personal fulfillment” at the heart of both the counterculture and consumer culture, which stood as flipsides of the same coin. Taking refuge in, and fortifying, what remained of private realms like the family seemed to Ellul the best chance “to restore ‘an autonomous vitality to certain parts of society.'” Strongholds of privatization were the last places capable of mounting the sorts of “new tensions” needed to counteract the tendencies of the “unitary society.” What the teachings of Ellul boiled down to, Lasch noted hopefully, was a vision designed
    “to create positions in which we reject and struggle with the State, not in order to modify some element of the regime or force it to make some decision, but, much more fundamentally, in order to permit the emergence of social, political, intellectual, or artistic bodies, associations, interest groups… totally independent of the state, yet capable of opposing it.”

    From the foundation of a small bastion of autonomous spheres, an independent civic society might flower. Only such a germination, grounded in culture, “‘would make possible a political life that would be something else than mere illusion.'”

    Further than this, Ellul did not go. While Lasch incorporated much of the Ellul’s thinking into his own, he pushed the ideas further in search of detailed criticism. He also established key distinctions between himself and Ellul, acknowledging shortcomings in the French theorists’ works. In Lasch’s opinion, for instance, Ellul placed far too much emphasis on technology and the state for buttressing cultural hegemony– “this argument,” Lasch charged, “seems curiously removed from everyday reality.” The larger force behind perpetuating the dominant culture could hardly stem from inanimate objects, the rise of machines and industrial trappings. “It is capitalism,” Lasch insisted, contra Ellul, “not technology, that requires these things.” Generating a line of social criticism informed by Ellul, but deviating from the conjoining of technology and cultural totalitarianism, Lasch closed his essay by turning to the peculiarities of the American cultural climate.

    Where Ellul argued “that wherever technological habits of thought come to prevail, they drive out every other consideration,” Lasch saw the masters of capital manipulating modes of thought to their advantage, quashing out better social alternatives for the sake of profits. The most telling example, Lasch suggested, was the automobile. Cars themselves did not promulgate “a moral use of technology”; it was their manufacturers who overlaid them into the wider ethos. Wielding incredible influence, the American auto industry trumped “the human need for open space, clean air, and livable communities.” Even though these needs could be easily met by efficient public transportation, they were “systematically subordinated to the automobile’s need for parking garages and super highways.” Yet, Lasch objected, “[t]his situation does not arise because the automobile in its technical aspect requires the suppression of other forms of surface transportation and thereby forces urban life to organize itself around cars to the exclusion of almost everything else.” Blaming the machine for its implementation let the real despoilers off the hook.

    Human actors were responsible for erecting a culture of mass car ownership at a staggering expense: “to the destruction of cities, to suburban blight, and to the general ‘environmental crisis.'” The culprit was the automobile business, which displaced more efficient subways and railroads and leveled city blocks for beltways, on the way to “dominat[ing] the entire economy, and political life as well.” Industrial executives, profiting immensely from the planned obsolesce of cars– built in by “shoddy workmanship,” and “deliberately inducing changes of fashion and taste” to make “the annual change of models a national ritual”– grafted their business model of “the planned production of waste” onto the American psyche through advertising. Commercialization, advertisers and executives realized, “could be used as form of propaganda– a means of sustaining an ideology and a culture organized around compulsive consumption.” Inundating the public with suggestive images and slogans, the car industry “established itself as the most appropriate and glamorous symbol of the consumer culture and the values it embodies: personal mobility and the private satisfaction of culturally induced needs and wants.”

    Not only did the automobile business serve as a representative manifestation of a system of cultural dominance, for Lasch, it further demonstrated how thoroughly entangled politics had become in the service of capitalist cultural imperialism. The government, Lasch railed, became little more than the handmaiden of the corporation’s quest for cultural monopoly. A far cry from the regulatory body envisioned by liberal idealists, the U.S. state had devolved into a complicit junior partner in enforcing corporate avarice. Lasch spelled out the dynamic of the relationship in cold, damning terms: “the nearly total subjection of the cultural apparatus to the advertising industry and the corporations ought to alert us to the fact that the growth of the state has come about to serve the needs of the corporations.” In every way the willing subsidiary to capitalist enterprise, the state busied itself with activities “on which the corporation depends but which are unprofitable,” like building bridges and highways, training scientists and engineers, sponsoring urban renewal, and removing the “ever-accumulating waste” inherent in an economy of disposable obsolescence. Meanwhile, business empires occupied their selective private sphere, “retaining for themselves the revenues created by the elaborate system of state regulations and subsidies.” Confronted with a reality this overwhelming and monolithically grim, it was small wonder that the majority of American citizens felt Ellul’s “helpless bewilderment” and sought retreat in reassuring myths or the fleeting pleasures of consumption.

    Like Ellul, Lasch wanted refuge over retreat, an eventual confrontation with cultural inequalities and praxes through the growth of a network of private subcultures of resistance. He also knew that such a confrontation was impossible as long as dedicated radicals chased after the illusory, backward-moving goal posts of the purely political, and as long as the sinister reality of cultural hegemony remained obscured from view. Awareness and the development of critical safe havens of autonomous civic culture, then, constituted essential first steps. An understanding of the ways culture worked, and a sense of outrage at its current dominance, were, in effect, “the prerequisite of cultural regeneration” for a decent, “genuinely civilized society.” Without a doubt, this was the singularly most powerful, the most profoundly insightful, avenue of social criticism struck by Lasch in retrenchment. Cultural regeneration as the seedbed for radicalism. Where this epiphany might take him as it matured remained to be seen.

  6. Michael–
    Thanks for the response. I think Genovese and Lasch are more similar in their outlooks than you suggest–they both put themselves outside the mainstream of American conservative thought because their cultural opposition to liberalism was really an opposition to the market culture of capitalism. Neither one lost sight of their original critique as they migrated from cultural left to cultural right.

    Jeff–
    Thanks for this long comment. Very interesting.

  7. 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.

    Jeff —

    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!

    All best,
    Michael

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