With his latest book, Peter Clecak has joined Daniel Yankelovich, Alvin Toffler, Herman Kahn, and other cultural forecasters who celebrate the diversity and vigor of American culture and predict a “more abundant life” to come. Although his argument is more complicated and more carefully qualified than theirs, it shares certain features common to the genre of cultural forecasting and assessment. It relies heavily on opinion polls and survey data and on works that summarize this data, like Yankelovich’s New Rules and The Connecticut Mutual Life Report on American Values in the’80s.1 It deals for the most part with the kind of superficial cultural changes that can be measured by public opinion polls: that is, with changes in cultural fashions. The controlling image of cultural change in such studies is that of the balance sheet, in which gains always seem to outweigh losses, not only because losses tend to resist quantification but because they can be dismissed as the “price of progress.”

These periodic readings of the public pulse use survey data with little awareness of their limitations. Thus Clecak denies that we live in a “secular or profane” society and cites surveys showing that 90 percent of Americans still adhere to some religious faith, even though surveys do not and probably cannot measure the depth of religious commitment. He rests his case for economic progress, in part, on surveys that indicate an increase in “job satisfaction” but ignore workers’ complaints about automation, intrusive supervision, or the lack of opportunities for initiative or advancement.

Clecak draws liberally on such data and on New Rules, Daniel Yankelovich’s “illuminating study” of the search for personal fulfillment; but he finds even Yankelovich “insufficiently pluralistic” in his “too-harsh appraisal of the moral fitness of Americans in the seventies.” Yankelovich sees the culture of that decade as “more selfish and more narcissistic than I believe it was.” Clecak’s own reading of cultural trends, which emphasizes the “stunning successes evidenced in the widening and deepening of personhood and in an enlargement of cultural space,” rests not only on the results of surveys, but on his own political ideology: his growing dissatisfaction with the analysis of modern society advanced by writers on the left. Formerly a socialist and the author of two books that criticized the left from the left—Radical Paradoxes (1973) and Crooked Paths (1977)—Clecak has “drifted away” from socialism and “lost faith in the supremacy of politics, although not in its high importance, in arranging the circumstances of a decent social life.” He now thinks it is a mistake to “take the measure of American culture and society against some imagined socialist future.”

Socialists are not alone, of course, in criticizing American culture. Indeed it could be argued that socialists have themselves absorbed the dominant ideology of technological progress and no longer advocate standards of justice or of cultural democracy that transcend prevailing standards. The hope that the socialist movement might replace Christianity as the bad conscience of the West no longer has much to recommend it. As Jacques Ellul points out, the socialist movement has inherited not the bad conscience of Christianity but the easy conscience of the nineteenth-century bourgeois church. Clecak, on the other hand, objects to socialism for the curious reason that it holds up an impossible standard of moral and political perfection.

American culture, he insists, has to be judged on its own terms. He therefore objects not merely to criticism of American culture from the left but to almost any criticism at all. He finds equally unpersuasive Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic and Fellow Teachers, and my own Culture of Narcissism. Ignoring their differences, Clecak lumps these books together as part of a general attack on American “selfishness,” ostensibly colored and flawed by “nostalgia.” Not socialism but nostalgia is Clecak’s real adversary. He finds nostalgia everywhere—on the left, in the center, on the neoconservative right. Whenever his own argument begins to falter, he brings on the cliché that critics of American culture suffer from uncontrollable nostalgia. He even manages to convince himself that cultural criticism in the Seventies, which allegedly fastened on the theme of the “me decade” (a very superficial reading of this criticism, incidentally) rested on nostalgia for the Sixties.

In order to refute this unfair criticism of the Seventies, as he sees it, and also to discourage the tendency to compartmentalize history by decades, Clecak emphasizes the continuity between the Sixties and the Seventies. He tries to show that even in the Sixties, cultural revolt—sexual freedom, rejection of the work ethic, experiments with oriental mysticism and charismatic Christianity, the hippies’ search for a community of love—took precedence over radical politics, and, furthermore, that the “quest for personal fulfillment” in the Seventies and Eighties complements the search for social justice instead of diverting attention from it. “Personhood,” he claims, presupposes a minimum of social justice. Now that Americans have accepted the new ideal of self-fulfillment first advanced by radicals in the Sixties, one group after another has demanded its rights and adopted formerly radical modes of political protest in order to secure them. This explosion of dissent, Clecak thinks, has resulted in ‘significant progress” for women, blacks, and other minorities—a “rapid democratization of personhood,” a “relaxation of work discipline,” a redistribution of “opportunity and responsibility.” Even beauty and ugliness have become “objects of dissent and protest.”


By confusing interest-group politics with a “widening and deepening of the idea of citizenship,” Clecak manages to convince himself that participatory democracy has made great strides. He sees political progress in the spread of “social criticism” and the multiplication of claimant groups—homosexuals, old people, environmentalists, taxpayers, the handicapped, even short people conducting a salutary campaign, as Clecak sees it, against “heightism,” or fat people deploring the cult of youthful slimness. He does not see that the language of radical protest loses its critical content when appropriated by such groups, who claim to have suffered discrimination as oppressive as that suffered by racial minorities. Nor does Clecak ask whether a democratic politics is likely to result from a moral exaltation of the victim.

True, he raises the possibility that “much of what passed for social criticism in the sixties and seventies” amounted to a kind of “junk criticism”—“demystification without understanding.” But he quickly redirects this observation against his opponents and loses the point in another warning against “knee-jerk pessimism”—as if it were “social criticism” that was undermining confidence in our institutions. It is Vietnam, Watergate, economic decline, the nuclear arms race, and public lying—developments barely alluded to in Clecak’s rosy account of recent history—that have weakened popular confidence in the future of democratic institutions. The point about social criticism is not that it encourages pessimism but that it has been cheapened, like everything else, by inflation. Since interest-group politics invites competitive claims to the privileged status of victimization, the rhetoric of moral outrage becomes routine, loses its critical edge, and contributes to the general debasement of political speech.

Clecak’s treatment of politics focuses on style rather than on substance. This might be forgiven in a book that deals principally with culture, if it did not approach culture in exactly the same way. There is something to be said for his insistence on the “secondary or accidental status of politics” in the cultural radicalism of the Sixties; but he trivializes the “counterculture” that appeared during those years by reducing it to a “quest for personal fulfillment.” By treating the radicalism of the Sixties as a “sensibility” or “style,” Clecak loses sight of its moral urgency. Even though the cultural side of the New Left’s criticism of American life has proved deeper and more durable than the political side, it was itself rooted in a perception of political crisis. The moral bankruptcy of American foreign policy, the danger of nuclear war, the poisoning of the air and water, the “nightmare of infinitely expanding technological progress,” as Norman O. Brown called it: these concerns shaped the counterculture at every point in its development. Even the movement’s illusions and craziness—its cult of violence, its infatuation with the media, its confusion of politics with guerrilla theater, its belief in the imminence of revolution, its ignorance of the past—sprang from an awareness that older political traditions, including both the liberal and the socialist traditions, had approached the point of exhaustion. Those who became radicals in the Sixties had a very shaky understanding of those traditions and thus tended to revive the very dogmas and schisms they thought they had outgrown. But at least they began with an important intuition into the present age as a sharp break in history, marked by mass murders, mass uprootings and migrations, but also by the possibility of a fresh start.

Clecak overlooks the peculiar combination of despair and hope that informed the New Left. Instead he observes the movement through the lens of a more recent preoccupation with “fulfillment.” Disregarding the specific historical roots of the New Left and the counterculture, he sees them as part of an amorphous collection of cultural initiatives that includes feminists and antifeminists, homosexuals and straights, militant atheists and born-again Christians—all those, in short, who resort to the “strategies of protest” and “dissent” in presenting their demands to the public.

Consider his discussion of evangelical and charismatic movements, which illustrates once again his subordination of content to style. He argues that millions of people still take Christianity seriously; he denounces intellectuals who look down on popular religion; but he ignores the specifically Christian content of the evangelical revival, just as he ignores the political content of the New Left, and proceeds to treat it as another expression of the search for “personal salvation conceived in its broadest theological and quasi-theological senses of felt wholeness.” He refuses to distinguish between the therapeutic strain in contemporary Christianity and the authentic Christian strain, arguing that only “purists” worry about the “illicit traffic” in salvation conducted by media evangelists and other hucksters of salvation. Most Americans, he claims, do not approach religion in a “sectarian” spirit—a remarkably misguided statement in view of the long history of American sectarianism, but one that fits snugly into a larger assumption about the nonideological character of American politics and religion.


The same assumption, reminiscent of the ideas of Louis Hartz and Daniel Boorstin,2 leads Clecak to avoid the conclusion that the revival of evangelical, charismatic, and fundamentalist sects signals a growing split between the culture of Middle America and the enlightened, secular, therapeutic culture of educated elites—a split referred to by some analysts as a “cultural civil war.” The hypothesis of cultural conflict has to be rejected, according to Clecak, because “these divisions do not threaten to destroy culture or to unravel the social fabric.” (Not many conflicts in history would meet such a rigorous test.) “Traditional” values have persisted side by side with newer values. The mixture leads not to conflict but to “more cultural opinions than ever: clear old choices, clear new choices, and a fertile range of ambiguous syntheses of old and new.” Like other pluralists, Clecak minimizes the persistence of ideological conflict by pretending that the exercise of cultural “options” has no consequences, since one choice never seems to preclude another. It is hardly necessary to explain that this assumption reduces the idea of choice to nonsense. Those who choose to raise their children as Christians claim that the mass media and the educational system subvert their efforts by propagating hedonism and “secular humanism,” while modernists believe that demands for the restoration of the death penalty, strict laws against abortion, and the teaching of “creation science” threatens everything they believe in. Every moral or cultural choice of any consequence rules out a whole series of other choices.

Clecak has set out to advance the debate about American culture beyond the invigorating but limited insights offered by the New Left, many of which were quickly reabsorbed and imprisoned in Marxist platitudes. But instead of raising the argument to a higher level, America’s Quest for the Ideal Self regresses to the point the argument had reached in the late Fifties. Clecak has scrapped Marxism only to revive the social theory of pluralism, with its emphasis on cultural consensus as opposed to conflict, its celebration of American practicality and the alleged American indifference to ideology, its equation of democracy with an expanding array of personal “options,” and, above all, its ambivalent attitude toward intellectuals. Like so many defenses of American popular culture written in the Fifties, Clecak’s book is less a defense of popular culture than an attack on its critics—on the intellectuals who judge it, he thinks, by a false set of standards. Just as Edward Shils and others tried to discredit criticism of mass culture by attributing it to ex-Marxists disgruntled by the workers’ failure to become revolutionary socialists, so Clecak insists that politically disappointed critics of American culture harbor “unrealistic expectations” and thus “misread the signs” of cultural change.

The critics’ “resentment,” he contends, blinds them to the “vitality and variety” of American life. Because American democracy has “prevented the sorts of changes in class consciousness anticipated by leftist critics and activists,” leftists and ex-leftists assume a posture of moral superiority and denounce their fellow citizens as self-centered and narcissistic. Ostensibly democratic in their identification with the toiling masses, radical intellectuals remain elitists at heart, fastidiously offended by the actual workings of democracy, by the crudity of popular taste, and by the refusal of the masses to act in line with intellectuals’ expectations.

It is an old refrain, this counterintellectual argument (as Peter Steinfels calls it in his book on neoconservatism3 ); its origins go all the way back to the nineteenth century. In its current form, however, it derives from debates about mass culture after World War II, in which liberal intellectuals like Shils, Herbert Gans, and Richard Hofstadter invoked theories of “status politics” and status revolutions to account for the alienation of left-wing intellectuals and for their persistent, misguided criticism of capitalism and its popular culture. Intellectuals and other elites, on this view, mistake the decline in their own genteel status for a general decline of American society and culture. They resent the masses’ lack of revolutionary fervor, but they resent even more bitterly their lack of taste.

In Clecak’s version of this well-worn argument, an “embattled intellectual elite” laments the collapse of standards, the “democratization of American culture,” the decline of the “morally tuned, well-crafted self.” The intellectuals’ “mood of defeat,” their “pessimism,” the “haze of nostalgia” through which they see the past reflect an elitist disdain for democracy. The “painful tensions between elitist cultural values and the results of democratic participation admit no easy resolution.” But disaffected intellectuals try to resolve them anyway, by writing “jeremiads” against the culture of narcissism, the triumph of the therapeutic, and the cultural contradictions of capitalism.

Clecak quotes Richard Hofstadter—quite appropriately, in view of Hofstadter’s popularization of the theory of status revolutions—to support his contention that criticism of American culture originates in the “unresolvable conflict,” as Hofstadter put it, “between the elite character of [the intellectual’s] own class and his democratic aspirations.” Clecak finds this trite formula so appealing that he simply closes his mind to arguments, that fail to conform to it—arguments, for example, that criticize American culture on the grounds not that it is too democratic but that the “democratization of culture” remains an illusion. Thus he quotes a statement of mine to the effect that the decline of public education forces us to “consider the possibility that mass education, as conservatives have argued all along, is intrinsically incompatible with the maintenance of educational quality.” According to Clecak, these words show that “what Lasch, along with many other critics and academics, actually laments is the failure of the liberally educated man to become the norm.”

A careless reader, he does not notice the rest of my argument, which tries to show why the conservative explanation of the failure of education—plausible as it seems at first glance—is wrong. In the passage Clecak omits from his discussion, I explicitly repudiate the notion that high standards of educational achievement are inherently elitist and hence beyond the intellectual capacities or ordinary people. I base my argument for educational decline on, among other pieces of evidence, students’ widely documented inability to understand such “elitist cultural values”—to use Clecak’s language—as the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and I go on to point out that “if an educated electorate is the best defense against arbitrary government, the survival of political freedom appears uncertain at best.”

Conservative critics of popular education and popular culture have always taken the position that “high culture” can be appreciated only by elites and that efforts to extend it to the masses inevitably lead to a debasement of standards. The debate about mass culture—revived in the Eighties in the form of a debate about “narcissism,” the decline of educational “excellence,” and the cultural roots of America’s declining position in the world market—remains mired in the old ruts because those who reject the conservative position, like Herbert Gans, Marshall Berman, and Clecak, nevertheless accept its major premise. They too believe that “high culture [has lost] much of its social authority,” as Clecak puts it; that “authoritative standards of judgment [are] increasingly difficult to discover,”; that democracy brings a certain “cheapening of opinion, a lowering of taste, lapses of civility”; and that the “bourgeois ideal of leisurely, gracious living has neither survived well among the very privileged nor spread throughout society.”

Those who see themselves as cultural democrats insist, however, that a loss of gentility is a small price to pay for social and economic progress. They argue that the past was a better time only “for certain elite groups,” in Clecak’s words. Most people in the past, he claims, led hard, unhappy lives. Industrialism has brought common people, for the first time, a “vast expansion of possibilities for personal fulfillment.” If they exploit these possibilities in ways that offend intellectuals, the important thing is that they have the right to choose. They enjoy a “range of cultural options” formerly available only to aristocrats. The excesses deplored by conservative intellectuals and “Tory radicals” are the excesses of immaturity, according to Clecak, and will give way in time to something better. The “thickening textures of middlebrow culture,” together with the “rising political sophistication of a better-educated citizenry,” show that popular culture has already achieved the beginnings of a new maturity.

As for “narcissism” and the “culture of selfishness,” Clecak treats these as “unavoidable byproducts,” “troubling side effects” of social and economic progress—“extreme instances of more salutary trends.” Intellectuals who see only the negative side of progress, he thinks, see American society through a “framework of nostalgia.” “To gauge American culture by means of a rising index of selfishness…seems to me as unprofitable as assessing progress in cardiac surgery during the sixties and seventies by counting the number of patients who die in operating rooms.”

In the form in which it has been conducted now for the last forty years, the debate about what used to be called mass culture and is now called narcissism can never be resolved. Who is to say whether the gains of social and economic democracy, undemonstrated in any case, outweigh its cultural “side effects”?

But suppose the question is misconceived. What if we reject the assumption behind this whole discussion, that industrialism fosters democracy? What if we start instead from the premise that large-scale industrial production undermines local institutions of self-government, weakens the party system, and leads to the centralization of political and economic power? Then cultural analysis can no longer content itself with balancing social and political gains against cultural losses. It will have to decide instead whether the invasion of culture and personal life by the modern industrial system produces the same effects that it produces in the social and political realm—a loss of autonomy and control, a tendency to mistake the exercise of consumer choices for self-determination, a growing ascendance of elites, the replacement of practical skills with organized expertise.

Clecak’s passing reference to cardiac surgery indicates what is wrong not just with his own argument but with the entire argument about mass culture. He equates technological progress with material and social progress, whereas in fact there is no connection between them. Once again, the point is not that material achievements—in this case, the prolongation of life mistakenly attributed to sophisticated surgical techniques—have an undesirable side effect: a growing population of old people unable to support themselves and confused about the moral meaning of old age. The point is that modern surgery, taken as a whole, has done very little, if anything, to improve the general level of health and physical well-being or even to prolong life.4 What medical technology has mainly done is to increase patients’ dependence on machines and the medical experts who operate these “lifesupport systems.” The development of modern technology, not only in medicine but in other fields as well, has improved human control over the physical environment only in a very superficial way, by enabling scientists to make short-term modifications of nature, of which the long-term effects are incalculable. Meanwhile it has concentrated this control in a small elite of technicians and administrators.

Ordinary people, on the other hand, enjoy demonstrably less control over their immediate surroundings than in the past, and this condition gives rise to a widespread feeling of powerlessness and victimization. The “proliferation of dissent” through the claims of protest groups, which figures so prominently in Clecak’s argument as an assertion of “personhood,” actually arises out of a feeling that other people are controlling our lives. The dominant imagery associated with political protest in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties is not the imagery of “personhood,” not even the therapeutic imagery of self-actualization, but the imagery of victimization and paranoia, of being manipulated, invaded, colonized, and inhabited by alien forces. Think of the angry people who find themselves living near dangerously poisonous chemical dumps, which the responsible industries and public officials have tried to conceal.

But the most glaring weakness in Clecak’s argument is his equation of “narcissism” with selfishness. The terms have little in common. Narcissism signifies a loss of selfhood not selfassertion. It refers to a self threatened with disintegration and by a sense of inner emptiness. To avoid confusion, what I have called the culture of narcissism might better be characterized as a culture of survivalism. The concern with the self, which seems so characteristic of our time, takes the form of a concern with its psychic survival. Everyday life has begun to pattern itself on the survival strategies forced on those exposed to extreme adversity. Selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live one day at a time—these techniques of emotional self-management, necessarily carried to extremes under extreme conditions, in more moderate form have come to shape the lives of ordinary people under the ordinary conditions of a bureaucratic society widely perceived as a farflung system of total control.

Confronted with an apparently implacable and unmanageable environment, people have turned to self-management. With the help of an elaborate network of therapeutic professions, which themselves have largely abandoned approaches that stress introspective insight in favor of “coping” and behavior modification, men and women today are trying to piece together a technology of the self, the only apparent alternative to personal collapse. Among many people, the fear that man will be enslaved by his machines has given way to a hope that man will become something like a machine in his own right and thereby achieve a state of mind “beyond freedom and dignity,” in the words of B.F. Skinner. Behind the injunction to “get in touch with your feelings”—a remnant of an earlier “depth” psychology—lies the now-familiar insistence, shared by est trainers, drug therapists, utopian computer theorists, and a host of others, that there is no depth, no desire even, and that the human personality is merely a collection of needs programmed either by biology or culture.

We are not likely to get any closer to an understanding of contemporary American culture as long as we define the poles of debate as selfishness and self-absorption, on the one hand, and self-fulfillment or introspection, on the other. According to Clecak, selfishness is the “deficit side” of cultural liberation—an “unavoidable byproduct of the quest for fulfillment.” It is a part of contemporary culture that must not be confused with the whole. “Though they are plausible to a degree, characterizations of America as a selfish culture typically confuse excesses with norms, byproducts with central and on the whole salutary outcomes of the quest” for self-fulfillment. But the question is not whether the “salutary” effects of “personhood” outweigh those of selfishness. The question is whether any of these terms capture either the prevailing patterns of psychological relations or the prevailing definition of selfhood.

The dominant conception of personality—and Clecak’s book inadvertently provides further evidence of its popularity—sees the self as a helpless victim of external circumstances. This is the view encouraged both by our twentieth-century experience of domination and by the many varieties of twentieth-century social thought that reach their climax in behaviorism. It is not a view likely to encourage either a revival of old-fashioned acquisitive individualism (which presupposed far more confidence about the future than most people have today) or the kind of search for self-fulfillment celebrated by Clecak and other optimists. A genuine affirmation of the self, after all, insists on a core of selfhood not subject to environmental determination, even under extreme conditions. Self-affirmation remains a possibility for Americans precisely to the degree that an older conception of personality, rooted in popular and Judeo-Christian traditions, has persisted alongside a behavioral or therapeutic conception. But this kind of self-affirmation, which remains a potential source of democratic renewal, has nothing in common with the current search for psychic survival.

Events during the last few months have made it clear that controversies about narcissism and the national “malaise” are part of a larger controversy about cultural renewal, prompted by the fear that self-indulgence and a hedonistic morality have crippled work discipline and productivity, undermined American enterprise, and thus weakened the country’s competitive position in the race for markets and national greatness. A series of international setbacks—Vietnam, the hostage crisis, the increase in the price of oil engineered by OPEC in the early Seventies and accepted by the US without protest—have combined with the loss of American markets to the West Germans and the Japanese to provoke a frenzy of soul-searching, much of it misguided but nevertheless important in the range of questions it raises. American know-how, it appears, no longer dominates the world. Our technology is no longer the most advanced, our industrial plant is decrepit, our city streets and transport systems are falling to pieces; and the question arises whether the faltering of the American economy does not reflect a deeper failure of morale, a cultural crisis associated in some way with the collapse of “traditional values” and the emergence of a new morality of self-gratification.

In the right-wing version of this argument, governmental paternalism and “secular humanism” have sapped the moral foundations of American enterprise, while pacifism, “survivalism,” and movements for unilateral disarmament have emasculated American foreign policy and made Americans unwilling to fight for freedom. The liberal version of the argument takes the form of a program of “reindustrialization” designed to upgrade American technology and to retrain the labor force. Thanks to a series of alarming reports on the failure of American education, the cultural implications of reindustrialization have become unmistakable. The latest of these reports, issued by leaders of sixteen corporations and universities, including the presidents of Harvard, Radcliffe, Notre Dame, and the State University of New York, demands the integration of “domestic and foreign policies into aggressive, coordinated national strategies to meet the challenge of international competition.” It calls for, among other things, a “displaced worker program modeled after the GI Bill,” improvements in the training of high school mathematics and science teachers, “more competitive salaries for engineering faculties,” and closer collaboration between industry and higher education in “problem-oriented research.”5

The debate linking cultural decadence to national economic and diplomatic failure raises fundamental issues and creates the opportunity for democrats to offer a competing explanation of the crisis and a competing program for social and cultural renewal. A democratic solution to the ills of American society would center on popular control over technology, job training, and education. It would reject both the hightech solution promoted by liberals and business reformers and the program of moral rearmament advocated by the right.

Most of the country’s problems derive, in one way or another, from the very social processes currently advanced in some quarters as solutions: the substitution of capital for labor; the concentration of control over production in a technical and managerial elite; the centralization of decision making, which leaves ordinary citizens increasingly powerless; the proliferation of destructive technologies that carry the risk of ecological disaster and nuclear war yet have never been publicly debated; the relentless pursuit of technical innovation at the expense of popular traditions of mutual aid and of traditional moralities; the substitution of technical expertise and social engineering for experience and practical reason. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that many people have come to feel helpless and beleaguered, or that their preoccupation with sheer survival overshadows other concerns.

American “morale” can be restored only by a democratization of decision making that breaks the pattern of control by technical elites. Before that can happen, however, people who care about democracy will have to admit that things have reached a turning point, instead of holding forth, in Clecak’s words, about the “astonishing gains” registered by the American economy, the salutary “shift in standards of beauty,” and the “vast expansion of possibilities for personal fulfillment.” This kind of talk can safely be left to the advertising and public relations industries. Overuse has admittedly cheapened the language of crisis, but it is clear that the country faces a choice that will determine its future for generations to come. To put it simply, Americans have to choose between their historic commitment to democracy and their more recent commitment to the uninhibited development of advanced technology. This is the choice that matters, compared with which the growth of personal “options”—largely illusory in any case—is of little importance, testifying not to the health of democracy but to the attempt to convince a disfranchised population that a choice among competing commodities can take the place of political power.

This Issue

February 2, 1984