The Hopeful Dystopian

On the enduring appeal of Christopher Lasch — on both the Left and Right.

Social critic Christopher Lasch leans on a desk at the head of the classroom. He taught history for many years at the University of Rochester, but his writing — especially that on the “culture of narcissism” — has reached far beyond the ivory tower. (Photo by Commonweal Magazine)

Why do we keep coming back to Christopher Lasch? There are political reasons why commentators on both the Left and the Right find it useful to return to his books and renew his criticisms of American society, or else simply filch them at their own convenience. Certainly, there is plenty in Lasch to raid, but his lasting appeal is due, I think, to a deeper quality in his writing.

Lasch’s polemical works of social criticism have a dramatic quality of plunging us into (and back into) crises we didn’t know we were experiencing but immediately recognize. His is a vision not of heroes and villains, nor of friends and enemies, but of a system that has, through accumulating unintended consequences, atomized the citizenry, undermined the idea of “the common life,” and rendered the world instead “a war of all against all.” Given that the first priority of anyone who finds themselves in such a world will be survival, Lasch’s works have the same appeal as classics of dystopian literature.

Take this passage, from Lasch’s 1984 book The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times:

A culture organized around mass consumption encourages narcissism — which we can define, for the moment, as a disposition to see the world as a mirror, more particularly as a projection of one’s own fears and desires — not because it makes people grasping and self-assertive but because it makes them weak and dependent. It undermines their confidence in their capacity to understand and shape the world and to provide for their own needs. The consumer feels that he lives in a world that defies practical understanding and control, a world of giant bureaucracies, “information overload,” and complex, interlocking technological systems vulnerable to sudden breakdown, like the giant power failure that blacked out the Northeast in 1965 or the radiation leak at Three Mile Island in 1979.

The references to the 1965 blackout and Three Mile Island, not to mention consumerism itself, sound quaint now, but they are the sort of problems that are still with us. Similarly, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, the 1979 bestseller to which The Minimal Self is a clarifying sequel, begins with an invocation of the twentieth century’s terrors: “The Nazi holocaust, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the depletion of natural resources, well-founded predictions of ecological disaster have fulfilled poetic prophecy, giving concrete historical substance to the nightmare, or death wish, that avant-garde artists were the first to express.” At the heart of both books is a lament for a culture that has lost the ability to accept limits, that has been overtaken by a horror of death and old age, and that, having sacrificed the consolations of religion, belief in posterity, and a long view of history, acquiesces to a general anomie.

I happened to revisit Lasch’s work around the same time I saw a screening of Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, which I was also rereading. Baumbach treats DeLillo’s story, perhaps appropriately, as a comedy and a period piece. Jack and Babette, the sympathetic campus yuppies raising a family of children from their previous marriages in a college town, are Laschian characters: Jack, the academic careerist whose shtick is to treat the life of Adolf Hitler as a sort of pop culture artifact; Babette, in thrall to her fitness regime and to an experimental drug that promises to rid her of the fear of death. After a comically violent climax that has the couple suffering minor gunshot wounds, they arrive at a hospital where they are attended to by nuns.

It’s a moment Lasch might have appreciated, a symbolic return to the care of those who still value the sacred and the ancient. In the novel, one of the nuns tells Jack: “It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously. To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die. This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody old things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse.” When their wounds are healed, Jack and Babette bring their family to that paradise of consumerism — the supermarket, where, in Baumbach’s adaptation, an uproarious musical number with what seems like the whole town dancing ensues.

It is an ironic twist that the apparent true believers are involved in a sort of spiritual division of labor and that the temple of mass consumption becomes the site of family and community renewal. Lasch, whose books are marked by readings of literary authors like Donald Barthelme, Philip Roth, and Frederick Exley, might have appreciated the joke. (Lasch’s freshman roommate at Harvard was John Updike.) He was possessed of a Promethean sense that genies cannot be put back in their bottles. He had a pessimistic sensibility but not a hopeless one. The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self have remained mainstays as starting points for broad diagnoses of the evolving age of pervasive anxiety and hyperindividualism in the podcastsphere and in books like Kristin Dombek’s 2016 study The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism. But two of his later works, 1991’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics and his posthumous The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, published in 1994, are even more relevant to the current American scene. These books both grew out of his works of psychologizing cultural sociology and return to the plane of politics that his earlier work inhabited.

The True and Only Heaven begins with a long section of intellectual autobiography, in which Lasch traces his evolution from an upbringing in Midwestern progressivism “overlaid by the liberalism of the New Deal” through a phase of socialism to a loss of “faith in the explanatory power of the old ideologies.” He opposed the Vietnam War and was at first heartened by the student movement, but then he came to believe that the “trouble with the new left . . . lay precisely in its ignorance of the earlier history of the left, as a result of which it proceeded to recapitulate the most unattractive features of that history: rampant sectarianism, an obsession with ideological purity, sentimentalization of outcast groups.” By this time, he had steeped himself in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukács, and the Frankfurt School, and he had written books chronicling American liberals’ response to the Russian Revolution, the radical tradition in the United States, and crises of the Left during the early years of the Cold War. Nearly six hundred pages in length, The True and Only Heaven proceeds from Enlightenment ideas of progress and countervailing populist movements through to the emergence of the so-called new class after World War I.

For Lasch, this class consisted of both the professional-managerial class of liberals and the neoconservative vanguard of the New Right. Both were united by a “culture of critical discourse.” (On this topic, Lasch’s writing takes on an aphoristic power: “Both the virtues and the defects of the professional class spring from the habit of criticism, which, unleavened by a sense of its own limits, soon reduces the world to ashes.”) In a basic sense, both liberals and conservatives were advocates of Enlightenment ideas of progress: liberals in their commitment to science, the Right in its allegiance to capitalism. In their different ways, Lasch argued, both the liberals and the conservatives were running cover for consumerism. The liberal professionals had promoted a cult of choice and therapeutic remedies, in essence creating demand for their own services and acting as adjuncts of Madison Avenue. Meanwhile: “The ideological appeal of the new right depended on its ability not only to emphasize social issues at the expense of economic issues but to deflect ‘middle-class’ resentment from the rich to a parasitic ‘new class’ of professional problem solvers and moral relativists.” Further:

New-class theory enabled the right to attack “elites” without attacking big business. Businessmen, it appeared, were responsible and public-spirited: they were accountable to the consumers to whom they sold their products, just as practical politicians were accountable to the voters; and the market thus limited any power they could hope to exercise. The new class, on the other hand, was accountable to no one, and its control of higher education and the mass media gave it almost unlimited power over the public mind.

Looking to the Left, Lasch was skeptical of Barbara Ehrenreich’s view, in her 1989 book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, that the new class had “the makings of a universal class and that its ‘program,’ accordingly, should seek ‘to expand the class, welcoming everyone, until there remains no other class.’” Lasch was somewhat withering on this point:

Neither left- nor right-wing intellectuals, strangely united in their determination to rescue the new class from itself, seem to have much interest in the rest of American society. Their view of the United States begins and ends with the knowledge industry. Other classes enter the picture only as images and stereotypes projected on the consciousness of the new class. It does not occur to these intellectuals that the rest of the country may have only a limited interest in the “soul” of the new class. Nor does it occur to them that universal access to professional status may not describe the ambitions of most Americans, much less an ideal of the good society.

The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy expands on this claim. At its heart is a critique of meritocracy, elaborating on the ideas of Michael Young, the English novelist who coined the term in 1958. “The general course of recent history,” Lasch writes, “no longer favors the leveling of social distinctions but runs more and more in the direction of a two-class society in which the favored few monopolize the advantages of money, education, and power.” The book has at times been appropriated by thinkers on the Right as an endorsement of their strategy of fomenting resentment toward liberal elites. (In 2017, Steve Bannon, then still in the White House, was reported to be reading it.) But such interpretations misplace the emphasis of Lasch’s arguments, much as the cover of his book does, printing the first half of its title in much larger type than the second half.

I recently observed a webinar of right-leaning intellectuals who wondered aloud whether Lasch could be recruited to the cause of “post-liberalism,” citing the book’s fourth chapter, “Does Democracy Deserve to Survive?” The question is rhetorical, and Lasch’s implication is that a centralized society dominated by the “talking classes,” liberal and conservative, had become so insular as to be almost entirely divorced from the concerns of “ordinary citizens.” In a discussion of political debate, he argues that the press, in becoming professionalized and prioritizing the objective dissemination of information, had declined relative to the more opinion-driven, even yellow journalism of the late nineteenth century. It’s an argument of a piece with his constant return to the ethic of small proprietorship as a countervailing force to centralized power.

The twenty-first century has not returned us to such a nineteenth-century scheme of things (or media landscape). In The True and Only Heaven, Lasch expresses admiration for the virtues of the petty bourgeoisie — “its egalitarianism, its respect for workmanship, its understanding of the value of loyalty, and its struggle against the moral temptation of resentment” — while refraining from “minimizing” its vices of “narrowness and provincialism,” nor denying that it has produced “racism, nativism, anti-intellectualism.” This class has long been a hinge in American politics, the proverbial small-business owners to whom each party tends to pander. It is to the vices of this group that the Republicans have increasingly catered (while some Democratic leaders have refrained from concealing their disdain for “deplorables”).

Whereas some intellectual heroes of the post-liberal right wing have advanced this sort of division — especially the unfortunately rehabilitated Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, with his vision of the distinction of “friends” and “enemies” as the essence of politics — it was anathema to Lasch. Though he was skeptical of the emergence (or desirability) of a “universal class,” the notion to which he constantly appealed was that of “the common life.” Against the “optimism” of technocracy and therapeutic culture and the sunny dreams of capitalist affluence, it was his source of hope:

If progressive ideologies have dwindled down to a wistful hope against hope that things will somehow work out for the best, we need to recover a more vigorous form of hope, which trusts life without denying its tragic character or attempting to explain away tragedy as “cultural lag.” We can fully appreciate this kind of hope only now that the other kind, better described as optimism, has fully revealed itself as a higher form of wishful thinking. Progressive optimism rests, at bottom, on a denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom, and it cannot survive for very long in a world in which an awareness of those limits has become inescapable. The disposition properly described as hope, trust, or wonder, on the other hand — three names for the same state of heart and mind — asserts the goodness of life in the face of its limits.

Of course, hope, trust, and wonder aren’t material things, and it might be naive to think we could have them in the same ways people used to. Then again, it might be arrogant to believe that things are so different now. At the end of DeLillo’s novel, Jack, the narrator, speaks of going nightly to an overpass with his wife and son to look at vivid and newly colorful sunsets in a sky that has recently been pocked by a large toxic cloud as the result of an accidental chemical spill.

Certainly there is awe, it is all awe, it transcends previous categories of awe, but we don’t know whether we are watching in wonder or dread, we don’t know what we are watching or what it means, we don’t know whether it is permanent, a level of experience to which we will gradually adjust, into which our uncertainty will eventually be absorbed, or just some atmospheric weirdness, soon to pass.

The hard thing about dystopia, or about the future, might be telling wonder from dread.

This article was featured in our fall 2022 print issue (“Dealignment”). Become a subscriber today.

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Christian Lorentzen’s writing has appeared in the London Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, Bookforum, Artforum, n+1, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Republic, the Paris Review, the Baffler, the New York Times, Slate, the Literary Review, and the New Leader. From 2015 to 2018, he was the book critic for New York Magazine.

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