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The Invasion of the Family

Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged

by Christopher Lasch
Basic Books, 230 pp., $12.95

Academic entrepreneurs, who are becoming more desperate these days, refer to family as a “buzz word.” They mean that the word, when hooked to any project, is promising bait for fellowships, jobs, participation in symposia, and competitive advances from publishers. A note buried toward the end of Haven in a Heartless World indicates that Christopher Lasch was so prescient in 1963 as to take class notes, as an auditing assistant professor, in a course on the sociology of the family. Because Lasch is a serious scholar who has long been studying American responses to the family, he is probably embarrassed by the sudden fashionability of the topic.

But whatever his original intentions, Lasch has not written another historical or sociological analysis of the family, although his book helps to explain the current national obsession.* Lasch’s subject is the “tradition of sociological study, which still defines the issues that inform most of the current commentary on the family.” More specifically, his book is a commentary on the ways in which academic and clinical social theory has reinforced and interacted with the institutional structures of corporate capitalism.

Many readers will be familiar with Lasch’s provocative independence and disturbing honesty of mind (parts of three chapters have appeared earlier in this journal or elsewhere). When Lasch describes Talcott Parsons as having a “conciliatory rather than a combative temperament,” he is really giving us a reverse self-portrait. If Parson’s “refusal to engage in argumentation…has had the unfortunate effect—perhaps not entirely unintentional—of seeming to place his own work above controversy and to give it a quality of scientific detachment,” this is not a risk that Lasch runs. His book will provoke howls of common anger from many otherwise opposing camps, since he boldly takes on Marxians and anti-Marxians, neo-Freudians and feminist anti-Freudians, Parsonians and anti-Parsonians, Moynihanians and anti-Moynihanians, and he directs his fire at most of the major American anthropologists, sociologists, and neo-Freudian analysts of the past sixty years.

Above all, Lasch is critical of Talcott Parsons, who was central in providing the theoretical justification for what Philip Rieff has called the “triumph of the therapeutic.” If Parsons is less familiar to the general public than such fellow sociologists as David Riesman and C. Wright Mills, he has been widely acknowledged as virtually the St. Thomas Aquinas of American social science. His elaborate theory of social equilibrium, together with his emphasis on “socialization” as enabling society to withstand moral and cultural crises, has had an influence extending far beyond the disciplines of history and the behavioral sciences. Concerned with the full sweep of “social relations,” Parsons and his followers have had a deep impact on the therapeutic professions and, through them, on public agencies and policies. By the 1960s, Parsons had become a figure of such towering authority that any challenge to official social thought was forced to define itself as anti-Parsonian. Yet as Lasch convincingly argues, the anti-Parsonians tended to accept their enemies’ most questionable premises concerning the inadequacy of the nuclear family as an agent of “socialization.”

The only figure Lasch seems drawn to is Willard Waller, who taught sociology in the early 1930s in Nebraska, incidentally the state where Lasch was born, and later at Pennsylvania State and Barnard College. An iconoclast who “harked back to Veblen and the best of populism,” Waller became best known for his study of dating practices, “The Rating and Dating Complex” (1937). Like Lasch, Waller expressed disdain for traditional positivistic sociology. Waller’s conviction that “activities ostensibly undertaken for pure pleasure had been invaded by the same machinery of organized domination from which pleasure and ‘fun’ were intended to provide relief” resembles the key theme of Lasch’s book. Hostile readers may note other parallels, such as the iconoclast’s inclination to become an isolated crank. “In a society lacking institutionalized mediation between social criticism and political action,” Lasch writes, referring to Waller, “the critic tends to express himself in personal and idiosyncratic judgments, rather than seeking to elaborate and revise a cumulative body of criticism.”

There can be little question that Lasch is unnecessarily combative and often given to exaggeration and reckless generalization. Yet he also seeks, with admirable clarity, to understand and revise a cumulative body of criticism. His excesses spring not only from a Jeffersonian “hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” but from a conviction that the worst and most subtle forms of such tyranny are those that are made to appear natural, inevitable, or invisible as a result of deliberate mystification or of massive intellectual conventions. It will be most unfortunate if the serious flaws in Lasch’s book encourage easy misreading or indignant dismissal. For there is no more brilliant exposure of the collective self-deceptions of a “therapeutic” society in quest of psychic security.

Lasch’s argument seems uncongenial precisely because he challenges our conventional structures of thought. Drawing on Freud, he finds irreconcilable conflict and psychic struggle precisely where social science has looked for harmony, adjustment, and “health”; yet, when Lasch turns outward to “cultural revolutions” and emancipations of various kinds, he finds unexpected continuities and consensus. The two discoveries are intimately related.

With respect to psychic conflict Lasch is an unreconstructed Freudian who insists on the need, if culture is to be reproduced, to embed it, as a kind of alien transplant, within the depths of personality. He considers any attempt to deny the irreconcilable struggle between instinct and culture as an invitation to individual self-deception and to the ideological forces that feed on individual self-deception. It has long been a truism that by the 1930s Americans, including many recent immigrants to America, had revised and assimilated Freud to the more radiant, hopeful, and fraternal environment of the New World, where fatherly “pals” were already replacing patriarchs. For Lasch this transformation is less an indication of the innocence and geniality of America than a clue to the mechanisms used by a corporate and consumer-oriented state for expropriating the whole process of family reproduction, the reproduction of both people and culture. In other words, social scientists, by denying the necessity of a dialectical and ultimately irresolvable struggle between individual instincts and the internalized union of love and discipline, as originally and objectively represented by parents, also deny the very basis for adult independence and open the way for pre-Oedipal illusions of social harmony through sympathy, improved communication, and “integrated personalities.”

In a brilliant analogy Lasch likens the “integrated personality” of the behavioral scientists to the “economic man” of the classical political economists. Both schools upheld an emerging system of power relationships by redefining “facts” and “reality,” in contrast to the earlier and more elaborate legal and religious metaphysics designed to justify the status quo. Both groups juxtaposed an abstract, one-dimensional, and statistically predictable individual with an equally abstract and harmonious system—in one case, the free market economy; in the other, an enveloping and rationally patterned “culture” which dissolved both unconscious resistance and external conflicts of power. The message, in both instances, was the need for acquiescence and conformity.

Ego psychologists, such as Erik Erikson, in Lasch’s view, more cunningly disguised this message by invoking the rhetoric and models of medicine. Individual resistance, far from being an expected and sporadic guerrilla campaign against the half-foreign rule of the superego, was now diagnosed as both contrary to “reality” and detrimental to health. By the 1940s and 1950s, the allure of health and togetherness, of a “we-feeling” among wholesome personalities, appealed to bourgeois liberals who were intent on rehabilitating capitalism and curing the world of totalitarianism and war. It appealed no less to German neo-Marxists and other radicals who, in their rebellion against the “authoritarian personality,” found a way of explaining pathological loyalties that transcended class interest.

This common gravitation toward spurious unities, harmonies, and integrations implied a negation of the one function that families alone could fulfill: that of forcing the child to struggle “with the ambivalent emotions aroused by the union of love and discipline in his parents,” to master “his inner rage or his fear of authority,” and to develop a capacity to temper fantasies with “practical experience, softening the early impression of an omnipotent, wrathful, and punitive father.” Drawing particularly on the work of Alexander Mitscherlich, Lasch emphasizes that

the absence, remoteness, or inaccessibility of the father does not mean that the child forms no ideas about him; it only means that those ideas will seldom be tested against everyday experience. The child imagines a remote, vindictive father and comes to see the world as starkly divided between power and impotence. He reduces all questions of justice and morality to questions of strength.

Under these conditions, the child remains a slave to pre-Oedipal impulses and external stimuli, with which he is bombarded by a culture devoted to consumption and immediate gratification. He resorts to violence in order to satisfy his desires, or else represses his violence and anger at a high psychic cost. Wishing to get rid of his father instead of taking the father’s place, he has little incentive to grow up. Psychologically he remains in important ways a child, surrounded by authorities with whom he does not identify and whose authority he does not regard as legitimate…. Meanwhile, he may harbor dreams of revenge, the most prevalent form of which, perhaps, is the fantasy of a general uprising of the young.

In many ways this passage may be taken as the unifying core of the book. It illuminates the otherwise unlikely continuity that Lasch detects between the social and psychiatric theory of the 1940s and 1950s and the “counterculture” of the late 1960s and 1970s. For even a generation ago the most conventional psychiatric and sociological wisdom had long been condemning the pathology of romantic love and calling for wider circles of friends and “coordinates” to replace the privatized family. Far from breaking with tradition, the New Left and counterculture, in Lasch’s view, merely joined a long-standing assault on the family’s exclusive reproductive role while perpetuating new illusions of self-fulfillment and communal regeneration. The “pseudo-radicals” of the late 1960s and 1970s were simply reenacting the kind of “revolution in manners and morals” which had characterized the 1920s and which had “merely facilitated the incorporation of women and youth into the market as full-fledged consumers, perpetually restless and dissatisfied.” Attacks on the Parsonians and the supposed postwar “cult of domesticity” misconceived the “real significance” of an era which gave lip service to the indispensability of the family while transferring its functions to social agencies and to experts in the art of social and psychic healing. Such experts, even in the 1920s, had sought to “expel from marriage, love, and sex precisely the irregular, the unpredictable, the unmanageable.”

Lasch’s central theme, then, is that critics, commentators, and therapists of all persuasions have helped to strip the family of its last shreds of privacy and autonomy, rendering it vulnerable to the full onslaughts of hucksterism and market manipulation. The same forces that had earlier impoverished work and civic life, in this bleak view, have now made family members “unable to provide for their own needs without the supervision of trained experts.” For example, in the earlier transformation of production, workers lost both ownership of their tools and knowledge of the productive process as a whole. In the “socialization of reproduction,” parents lost confidence in their knowledge of proper childhood nutrition, of standards of safety, and even of the values and social skills that would be necessary for their children to deal with their own generation.

In this work of demolition, pseudorebellions and liberations have played a conspicuous part, since America is a country “where defense of an emerging status quo usually takes the form of urgent calls for sweeping reform,” and where radicals boldly defend “views that have already become acceptable to everyone except the most hardened reactionaries.” If the postwar establishment of “helping professions” took a “catholic” approach to therapeutic intervention and ritual, the radical “protestants” have simply insisted on diffusing and expanding “therapeutic conceptions of reality…rooting them in popular understanding and daily practice.” In Lasch’s extremely pessimistic view, the prevailing fear of parenthood, the cult of nonbinding commitments and “living for now,” represent “the final dissolution of bourgeois optimism and self-confidence.”

For all his emphasis on historical continuity, Lasch has clearly been shaken, to the point of shrill overreaction, by the recent divorce rate, the trend of avoiding or postponing marriage, and the more bizarre attacks on the family and celebrations of experimental styles of life. For example, he falls into a significant contradiction when, in discussing Talcott Parsons’s belief that early childhood dependence provides a basis for later autonomy, he complains that the theory “hardly anticipated the emergence of a youth culture that condemned American society in the most sweeping terms, repudiated the desirability of growing up in the usual way, and sometimes appeared to repudiate the desirability of growing up at all.” Lasch concludes that Parsons’s theory of 1962 had “no capacity to explain empirical events, as any theory must.” Yet one must object that if the youth rebellion was spurious and merely a confirmation of long-term trends, as Lasch elsewhere claims, then Parsons may be vindicated in a highly ironic way. For if Lasch is right in the latter diagnosis, it can be argued that childhood dependence and security were not at odds with the “instrumental” values of society, since the family’s “expressive functions”—such as the child-centered affection and generosity intended to create a positive self-image—helped to facilitate a rebellion that was self-neutralizing and that ultimately supported social equilibrium.

Parsons was clearly wrong in thinking that the family was emerging from a period of crisis and becoming stabilized, but this could have been the result of empirical error rather than faulty theory. Lasch himself tends to disdain empirical evidence and hardly proves his case for runaway disintegration by ominous references to divorce, feminists, and “swinging singles.” If one may turn Lasch against Lasch, the social system will tolerate abuse of the family only so long as such abuse serves a purpose.

This objection introduces a more serious problem. Sometimes Lasch writes like a critic who views his subject from the outside, employing Freud and Marx to portray a highly interdependent, self-limiting system which serves the interests of a privileged class and which develops efficient mechanisms for neutralizing dissent. At other times Lasch writes like a neo-Populist who has merely substituted social scientists and the “helping professions” for Wall Street bankers and railroad magnates. In the latter mood Lasch comes across as a besieged participant and victim, threatened by a strange alliance of marriage counselors, home economists, psychiatrists, social workers, sex therapists, “educators and social reformers,” “planners and policymakers,” to say nothing of the violent, young, and narcissistic pseudo-radicals who are egged on by the professionals.

If Lasch stops short of indulging in fantasies of conspiracy, which in this case would veer perilously close to those of the extreme right, he does obscurely equate his homogenized enemy with the “state,” with “capitalists,” and with the “same forces” responsible for most of the misery of modern Americans. Both of Lasch’s perspectives presuppose significant connections between the control of socialization and the aggrandizing structures of corporate power. But Lasch as external critic exposes the mystifications that contribute to homeostasis; Lasch as the embattled moralist rails against an irreversible fall from grace.

No doubt similar contradictions pervade the work of our most profound social critics, who have characteristically fused intellectual detachment with some form of embittered experience. Lasch’s great achievement, in directing a dazzling burst of light upon dangerous illusions, is not diminished by the distorted shadows he casts on our past and future. His indispensable contribution is the argument that public concern for the plight of the family has commonly masked efforts to subject the family to new forms of outside influence, usually in the interest of marketing new services and products. Yet it needs to be stressed that by locating the origins of the decline of the family in the relatively recent past, Lasch falls into an uncritical nostalgia for a golden age when the functions of the family formed “an integrated system” insulated from the intrusions of a heartless world.

The nostalgia is misleading on two counts. Most of the issues Lasch discusses were visible long before the Civil War, when “interventionists”—ranging from the Boston Prison Discipline Society to public school reformers—were already proposing, for example, that families adopt the system of surveillance and calculated privation that had supposedly proved effective in penitentiaries. If it is objected that few families actually followed the advice offered in sermons, childbearing manuals, popular magazines, and lyceum lectures, one must answer that Lasch says nothing about the number of parents and children currently victimized by the “helping professions.” Lasch’s theory of unilinear decline also overlooks the misery, shame, violence, humiliation, and ignorance of the “premodern” family. Far from encouraging the notion that each individual is the “autonomous creator of his own destiny,” such families were typically dominated by the terrors of Calvinist or Catholic conceptions of sin. Moreover, in defiance of historians, these supposedly “premodern” patterns have shown a stubborn unwillingness to become extinct. For good or ill, the American family has been far less volatile, conformist, and changeable than has social theory.

When one elongates the historical perspective, the future of the family appears less bleak than Lasch would have it. Since the “invasion” he describes has been under way for nearly two centuries, we would have nothing left to invade if history had moved, as he seems to presuppose, in a single direction. But this is only to say that the model of a continuous decline shares the defects of the model of continuous progress, of which, of course, it is the mirror image.

  1. *

    For Lasch’s response to recent proposals for a “family policy,” see his review essay, “The Siege of the Family,” NYR, November 24, 1977.

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