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The Prophet

Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism

by Christopher Lasch, edited by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
Norton, 196 pp., $23.00


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.

Although Lasch had a distinctive presence on the landscape, it was not a happy one, nor was he always a persuasive critic of his own society and its cultural foibles. Sometimes he simply ran into the American preference for good news over bad. His one foray into high-level politics was a notable disaster. In the late 1970s, President Carter was much taken with Lasch’s diagnosis of the American psyche; Lasch thought that “low-level depression” was the habitual condition of many, if not most, Americans, and that the search for personal fulfillment had left all too many of them with no personality to fulfill. Unluckily for Jimmy Carter, his Lasch-inspired speech on American “malaise” ran head-on into Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism, and contributed something, though it can hardly have been very much, to his defeat in the presidential election of 1980.

Another of Lasch’s difficulties, however, was that it was unclear what remedies he supposed there might be for the evils that beset America. He was certainly not willing to be merely a writer of jeremiads, but that was what he increasingly appeared to be. He was, as every reviewer of his work observed, an angry critic, and even in his best essays the dispassionate observer and intellectual historian coexisted somewhat uneasily with the infuriated puritan and prophet of political ruin. In the less good essays, something close to mere denunciation took over. The True and Only Heaven, published in 1991 and one of his least successful books, attacked the liberal faith in progress from every conceivable angle, and although it was the longest of his books, it was the least persuasive: the assault was so unrelieved in its bleak vision that the argument was swamped by the author’s unhappiness.

As The Revolt of the Elites later demonstrated, Lasch certainly had his own vision, not a vision of Utopia but a vision of a decent society, a society, or so we could infer, of active, community-minded populists largely from the working class and lower-middle class who would reject state and corporate bureaucrats and experts of all sorts in favor of their own hardworking, unhedonistic attempts to find their own solutions, whatever they might be. The True and Only Heaven, however, was vulnerable to the complaint that Lasch habitually denounced liberalism for steering the cautious course between wholehearted reaction and uninhibited revolution that is in fact one of liberalism’s virtues.

Lasch’s favored approach to the subjects he was concerned with made it all the harder to discover what world he might have felt at home in. Almost all his books are essentially collections of review essays; he was a naturally antagonistic thinker, not in the sense that he wanted to contradict absolutely everybody about absolutely everything, but in the sense that the way he found out what he thought about a topic was by probing other writers’ views to see how they stood up to criticism. It is a habit of mind that some notable social thinkers have shared—Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill come instantly to mind. One of the many things that The Revolt of the Elites, Haven in a Heartless World (1977), and the posthumous Women and the Common Life share is that they are organized like a superior graduate seminar on the history of social scientific thinking. Familiar and unfamiliar persons and texts pass in review, mostly damned but occasionally praised; and the class moves on. Lasch was much loved by his students, especially his tougher and cleverer graduate students, and it is easy to see why. His prose was so clear and arresting partly because he wrote in a way that suggested a person who was thinking on his feet and talking half to the reader and half to the absent and sometimes long-dead authors with whom he was engaged. Whatever the pleasures of reading him, it was hard to resist the feeling that it would have been even better to listen to him and argue with him.

Some writers find such allusiveness a congenial way of proceeding because it allows them to hide behind their favorite authors and let their own views emerge in borrowed clothes; nothing could be farther from Lasch’s style. The authorial voice was clear throughout; the difficulty the reader faced was working out whether the voice was always saying the same thing. The reason why this was difficult was simple enough. Lasch’s relationship to even those ideas he found most congenial was wary; he had the historian’s skepticism about what drove people to accept the views they did, and the historian’s interest in what happened when they did so, rather than the philosopher’s taste for suspending disbelief in order to explore whatever collection of theories and hypotheses he or she might encounter.

In his essays on the family, personality, and contemporary culture, Lasch had two guiding lights. And one of the two, at least, he seemed not to trust very far. The first was a variation on Marx’s emphasis on the primacy of the forces of production—or, in plain English, Marx’s insistence that it is changes in the organization of work, trade, and consumption that are the most important causes of changes in family life, and in the way we think about it. The second was Freud’s insistence on the deeply unsociable, or even antisocial, quality of our unconscious wishes and fantasies. Reformers who underestimated the crookedness of the timber of which humanity is made earned Lasch’s most withering contempt, and those who thought that we might be made happy by being preached at came a close second. And yet it would be quite wrong to think of Lasch as a Freudian or a Marxist, or even as a “Freudo-Marxian.”

Perhaps Lasch found Marx, and to some degree Freud, too confidently meliorist for his tastes; although Lasch admired Freud, and never tired of drawing unkind comparisons between Freud and his American interpreters, Freud was a doctor, and he did try to effect cures for the grosser kinds of neurotic misery that he diagnosed. It may only have been the modest project of replacing neurotic misery with common unhappiness that he had in mind, but it was a therapeutic intervention, however modest. And Marx certainly looked forward to the moment when social relations would be transparently rational, and would be so because conflicts of economic interest had been overcome with the advent of socialism. Lasch never seemed to think that the Marxian program made much sense, however happy he was to use Marx’s analytical concepts.

Indeed, Lasch was closer to a common ancestor of both Marx and Freud—Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For what was very un-Marxian about Lasch’s view of the twentieth century was his readiness to launch into a denunciation of its moral ugliness. There was none of Marx’s arm’s-length and almost cynical commentary on the contrast between bourgeois ideals and bourgeois adultery. It was as an unabashed moralist that Lasch denounced

the invasion of the family by the marketplace and the street, the crumbling of the walls that once provided a protected space in which to raise children, and the perversion of the most intimate relationships by the calculating, manipulative spirit that has long been ascendant in business life.

Like Rousseau, too, he attacked the nastiness of economic life because of its effect on private life and the development of individual character. Certainly, it was part of growing up to learn how to control our emotions and to adopt an instrumental attitude to many of the ordinary tasks of life; but the manipulative personality was morally beyond the pale. By the same token, self-control and self-discipline are essential qualities in an adult; but the attempt to be “cool” by ensuring that nothing touches us very deeply, and that we can always present a pleasant appearance to other people, is a moral disaster.

In the middle of the eighteenth century Rousseau argued in very much the same vein that “progress” was an illusion, that sophistication was a mask for exploitation, that social mobility was more likely to lead to alienation from both our old and our new surroundings than to any real happiness. Psychological causes had disastrous political effects: the kind of people a commercial society produced were utterly incapable of self-government. In exactly the same way as Lasch, Rousseau left his readers in no doubt that we would all be better off in a simpler, more stable, more disciplined society, but he was not at all sure what that society would look like, let alone how we might get there. In just the same way as Rousseau, Lasch left his readers uncertain whether he was or was not nostalgic for a vanished past. Unlike Rousseau, Lasch could and often did escape his questioners by insisting that he was not concerned to judge his contemporaries, but to understand how we had come to our present pass.

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