Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism
It was hard to believe that Christopher Lasch was only sixty-one when he died in early 1994. He had long occupied what seemed a permanent as well as a distinctive place in American cultural and intellectual life. It has been more than thirty years since many of us found our way into the checkered history of reforming American intellectuals through the essays in The New Radicalism in America and The Agony of the American Left. His best-known book, The Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979, was a best-seller that added a much-needed phrase to the American language. The book has come to mark a lasting, perhaps a permanent, division in American culture. On one side—Lasch’s own side—stand those who cannot stomach what Lasch calls “the therapeutic state,” and on the other stand the gathered ranks of social workers, family therapists, the authors of New Age, psychological cookbooks, and inspirational self-help tracts, and their employers, clients, and readers.
Although he spent his working life in university departments of history, Lasch had an acute eye for the American public’s latest anxieties, and a literary skill in characterizing them that allowed him to reach effortlessly beyond the confines of the academy. In 1995, The Revolt of the Elites—the book he finished only a few days before he died of leukemia—became a posthumous best-seller. It seized on our contemporary fear that the American upper class is so much a creature of the global marketplace that it cares no more for its own country than for any other. Unlike other writers who had made something of this fear, Lasch broadened his indictment of America’s educational, financial, and cultural elites into a general assault on the ideals of liberalism—particularly on the liberal obsession with social mobility on the one hand and with individual fulfillment on the other. A society obsessed with individual achievement and social mobility had no moral resources with which to combat those who exploited its resources and returned nothing of substance to it.
Against these liberal ideals, Lasch emphasized populist values that defy categorization as “conservative” or “radical.” Or, rather, they invite categorization as both, since Lasch sounded very like a member of the Republican right when denouncing work-shy, sexually predatory young men, and like an unreconstructed member of the Old Left when denouncing hard-working, but financially predatory, bankers, managers, and brokers. These are the values of what British observers used to call “the respectable working class,” the sort of people whose disappearance many American observers have recently lamented—the blue-collar workers who once filled union halls and got out the Democratic vote. They were natural egalitarians inasmuch as they were hostile to unearned privilege, and skeptical of the cultural pretensions of their social superiors; but they drew a sharp line between the deserving and the undeserving poor, and found their own secular salvation in steady work, loyalty to family and community, and the knowledge that they were indeed the backbone of their country.