Robert Christopher Lasch
June 1, 1932
|Died||February 14, 1994 (aged 61)|
Nell Commager (m. 1956)
|Thesis||Revolution and Democracy (1961)|
|Doctoral advisor||William Leuchtenburg|
|Notable works||The Culture of Narcissism (1979)|
Robert Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) was an American historian, moralist, and social critic who was a history professor at the University of Rochester. Lasch sought to use history as a tool to awaken American society to the pervasiveness with which major institutions, public and private, were eroding the competence and independence of families and communities. He strove to create a historically informed social criticism that could teach Americans how to deal with rampant consumerism, proletarianization, and what he famously labeled the "culture of narcissism".
His books, including The New Radicalism in America (1965), Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Culture of Narcissism (1979), The True and Only Heaven (1991), and The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (published posthumously in 1996) were widely discussed and reviewed. The Culture of Narcissism became a surprise best-seller and won the National Book Award in the category Current Interest (paperback).[a]
Lasch was always a critic of modern liberalism and a historian of liberalism's discontents, but over time his political perspective evolved dramatically. In the 1960s, he was a neo-Marxist and acerbic critic of Cold War liberalism. During the 1970s, he supported certain aspects of cultural conservatism with a left-leaning critique of capitalism, and drew on Freud-influenced critical theory to diagnose the ongoing deterioration that he perceived in American culture and politics. His writings are sometimes denounced by feminists and hailed by conservatives for his apparent defense of the traditional[clarification needed] family.
He eventually concluded that an often unspoken but pervasive faith in "Progress" tended to make Americans resistant to many of his arguments. In his last major works he explored this theme in depth, suggesting that Americans had much to learn from the suppressed and misunderstood populist and artisan movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Born on June 1, 1932, in Omaha, Nebraska, Christopher Lasch came from a highly political family rooted in the left. His father, Robert Lasch, was a Rhodes Scholar and journalist; in St. Louis he won a Pulitzer prize for editorials criticizing the Vietnam War. Zora Lasch (née Schaupp), his mother, who held a philosophy doctorate, worked as a social worker and teacher.
Lasch was active in the arts and letters early, publishing a neighborhood newspaper while in grade school, and writing the fully orchestrated "Rumpelstiltskin, Opera in D Major" at the age of thirteen.
Lasch studied at Harvard University, where he roomed with John Updike, and Columbia University, where he worked with William Leuchtenburg.Richard Hofstadter was also a significant influence. He contributed a Foreword to later editions of Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition and an article on Hofstadter in the New York Review of Books in 1973. He taught at the University of Iowa and then was a professor of history at the University of Rochester from 1970 until his death from cancer in 1994. Lasch also took a conspicuous public role. Russell Jacoby acknowledged this in writing that "I do not think any other historian of his generation moved as forcefully into the public arena". In 1986 he appeared on Channel 4 television in discussion with Michael Ignatieff and Cornelius Castoriadis.
During the 1960s, Lasch identified himself as a socialist, but one who found influence not just in the writers of the time such as C. Wright Mills but also in earlier independent voices such as Dwight Macdonald. Lasch became further influenced by writers of the Frankfurt School and the early New Left Review and felt that "Marxism seemed indispensable to me". During the 1970s, however, he became disenchanted with the Left's belief in progress--a theme treated later by his student David Noble--and increasingly identified this belief as the factor which explained the Left's failure to thrive despite the widespread discontent and conflict of the times.
At this point Lasch began to formulate what would become his signature style of social critique: a syncretic synthesis of Sigmund Freud and the strand of socially conservative thinking that remained deeply suspicious of capitalism and its effects on traditional institutions.
Besides Leuchtenburg, Hofstadter, and Freud, Lasch was especially influenced by Orestes Brownson, Henry George, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Philip Rieff. A notable group of graduate students worked at the University of Rochester with Lasch, Eugene Genovese, and, for a time, Herbert Gutman, including Leon Fink, Russell Jacoby, Bruce Levine, David Noble, Maurice Isserman, William Leach, Rochelle Gurstein, Kevin Mattson, and Catherine Tumber.
After seemingly successful cancer surgery in 1992, Lasch was diagnosed with metastatic cancer in 1993. Upon learning that it was unlikely to significantly prolong his life, he refused chemotherapy, observing that it would rob him of the energy he needed to continue writing and teaching. To one persistent specialist, he wrote: "I despise the cowardly clinging to life, purely for the sake of life, that seems so deeply ingrained in the American temperament." Lasch succumbed to his cancer at his Pittsford, New York, home on February 14, 1994, at age 61.
Lasch's earliest argument, anticipated partly by Hofstadter's concern with the cycles of fragmentation among radical movements in the United States, was that American radicalism had at some point in the past become socially untenable. Members of "the Left" had abandoned their former commitments to economic justice and suspicion of power, to assume professionalized roles and to support commoditized lifestyles which hollowed out communities' self-sustaining ethics. His first major book, The New Radicalism in America: The Intellectual as a Social Type, published in 1965 (with a promotional blurb from Hofstadter), expressed those ideas in the form of a bracing critique of twentieth-century liberalism's efforts to accrue power and restructure society, while failing to follow up on the promise of the New Deal. Most of his books, even the more strictly historical ones, include such sharp criticism of the priorities of alleged "radicals" who represented merely extreme formations of a rapacious capitalist ethos.
His basic thesis about the family, which he first expressed in 1965 and explored for the rest of his career, was:
When government was centralized and politics became national in scope, as they had to be to cope with the energies let loose by industrialism, and when public life became faceless and anonymous and society an amorphous democratic mass, the old system of paternalism (in the home and out of it) collapsed, even when its semblance survived intact. The patriarch, though he might still preside in splendor at the head of his board, had come to resemble an emissary from a government which had been silently overthrown. The mere theoretical recognition of his authority by his family could not alter the fact that the government which was the source of all his ambassadorial powers had ceased to exist.
Lasch's most famous work, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979), sought to relate the hegemony of modern-day capitalism to an encroachment of a "therapeutic" mindset into social and family life similar to that already theorized by Philip Rieff. Lasch posited that social developments in the 20th century (e.g., World War II and the rise of consumer culture in the years following) gave rise to a narcissistic personality structure, in which individuals' fragile self-concepts had led, among other things, to a fear of commitment and lasting relationships (including religion), a dread of aging (i.e., the 1960s and 1970s "youth culture") and a boundless admiration for fame and celebrity (nurtured initially by the motion picture industry and furthered principally by television). He claimed, further, that this personality type conformed to structural changes in the world of work (e.g., the decline of agriculture and manufacturing in the US and the emergence of the "information age"). With those developments, he charged, inevitably there arose a certain therapeutic sensibility (and thus dependence) that, inadvertently or not, undermined older notions of self-help and individual initiative. By the 1970s even pleas for "individualism" were desperate and essentially ineffectual cries which expressed a deeper lack of meaningful individuality.
Most explicitly in The True and Only Heaven, Lasch developed a critique of social change among the middle classes in the US, explaining and seeking to counteract the fall of elements of "populism". He sought to rehabilitate this populist or producerist alternative tradition: "The tradition I am talking about ... tends to be skeptical of programs for the wholesale redemption of society ... It is very radically democratic and in that sense it clearly belongs on the Left. But on the other hand it has a good deal more respect for tradition than is common on the Left, and for religion too." And said that: "... any movement that offers any real hope for the future will have to find much of its moral inspiration in the plebeian radicalism of the past and more generally in the indictment of progress, large-scale production and bureaucracy that was drawn up by a long line of moralists whose perceptions were shaped by the producers' view of the world."
By the 1980s, Lasch had poured scorn on the whole spectrum of contemporary mainstream American political thought, angering liberals with attacks on progressivism and feminism. He wrote that
A feminist movement that respected the achievements of women in the past would not disparage housework, motherhood or unpaid civic and neighborly services. It would not make a paycheck the only symbol of accomplishment. ... It would insist that people need self-respecting honorable callings, not glamorous careers that carry high salaries but take them away from their families.
Journalist Susan Faludi dubbed him explicitly anti-feminist for his criticism of the abortion rights movement and opposition to divorce. But Lasch viewed Ronald Reagan's conservatism as the antithesis of tradition and moral responsibility. Lasch was not generally sympathetic to the cause of what was then known as the New Right, particularly those elements of libertarianism most evident in its platform; he detested the encroachment of the capitalist marketplace into all aspects of American life.
Lasch rejected the dominant political constellation that emerged in the wake of the New Deal in which economic centralization and social tolerance formed the foundations of American liberal ideals, while also rebuking the diametrically opposed synthetic conservative ideology fashioned by William F. Buckley Jr. and Russell Kirk. Lasch also was surprisingly critical and at times dismissive toward his closest contemporary kin in social philosophy, communitarianism as elaborated by Amitai Etzioni. Only populism satisfied Lasch's criteria of economic justice (not necessarily equality, but minimizing class-based difference), participatory democracy, strong social cohesion and moral rigor; yet populism had made major mistakes during the New Deal and increasingly been co-opted by its enemies and ignored by its friends. For instance, he praised the early work and thought of Martin Luther King as exemplary of American populism; yet in Lasch's view, King fell short of this radical vision by embracing in the last few years of his life an essentially bureaucratic solution to ongoing racial stratification.
He explained in one of his books The Minimal Self, "it goes without saying that sexual equality in itself remains an eminently desirable objective ...". In Women and the Common Life, Lasch clarified that urging women to abandon the household and forcing them into a position of economic dependence, in the workplace, pointing out the importance of professional careers does not entail liberation, as long as these careers are governed by the requirements of corporate economy.
In his last months, he worked closely with his daughter Elisabeth to complete The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy, published in 1994, in which he "excoriated the new meritocratic class, a group that had achieved success through the upward-mobility of education and career and that increasingly came to be defined by rootlessness, cosmopolitanism, a thin sense of obligation, and diminishing reservoirs of patriotism," and "argued that this new class 'retained many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues,' lacking the sense of 'reciprocal obligation' that had been a feature of the old order."
Christopher Lasch analyzes the widening gap between the top and bottom of the social composition in the United States. For him, our epoch is determined by a social phenomenon: the revolt of the elites, in reference to The Revolt of the Masses (1929) of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. According to Lasch, the new elites, i.e. those who are in the top 20 percent in terms of income, through globalization which allows total mobility of capital, no longer live in the same world as their fellow-citizens. In this, they oppose the old bourgeoisie of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which was constrained by its spatial stability to a minimum of rooting and civic obligations.
Globalization, according to the historian, has turned elites into tourists in their own countries. The de-nationalization of society tends to produce a class who see themselves as "world citizens, but without accepting ... any of the obligations that citizenship in a polity normally implies". Their ties to an international culture of work, leisure, information - make many of them deeply indifferent to the prospect of national decline. Instead of financing public services and the public treasury, new elites are investing their money in improving their voluntary ghettos: private schools in their residential neighborhoods, private police, garbage collection systems. They have "withdrawn from common life".
Composed of those who control the international flows of capital and information, who preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher education, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus fix the terms of public debate. So, the political debate is limited mainly to the dominant classes and political ideologies lose all contact with the concerns of the ordinary citizen. The result of this is that no one has a likely solution to these problems and that there are furious ideological battles on related issues. However, they remain protected from the problems affecting the working classes: the decline of industrial activity, the resulting loss of employment, the decline of the middle class, increasing the number of the poor, the rising crime rate, growing drug trafficking, the urban crisis.
In addition, he finalized his intentions for the essays to be included in Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism, which was published, with his daughter's introduction, in 1997.