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.
The moralizing vein in Lasch’s work was so strong that it is tempting to think that he admired the intransigence of Marx and Freud and their insistence on the limits of human will as a moral perspective more than as a contribution to our social understanding. In Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling comes very close to defending Freud’s account of our unconscious life as a morally necessary myth, though not in any obvious way literally true. But that was not what Lasch argued when he tackled the matter head-on. In Haven in a Heartless World, there is an essay on “The Social Theory of the Therapeutic,” which is for the most part a criticism of Talcott Parsons’s discussion of the role of the family in contemporary society. The essay savages Parsons’s “bowdlerization” of Freud’s account of infantile sexuality: “As learning becomes the focus of socialization theory, fantasy, the unconscious, and sexuality slip back into the darkness from which psychoanalysis tried to bring them to light.” Sexual desire is softened into a simple wish for pleasure, and the violent, conflictual picture of infant sexuality that Freud drew is reworked in pastel colors. Parsons’s thought is that what the child wants is first emotional security, and then, much later, independence. Freud’s thought that what the child wants is to murder its father and ravish its mother is too much for Parsons to handle.
Right or wrong as this may be as a criticism of Parsons, it is not surprising that Lasch goes on to mention Lionel Trilling’s view that one of Freud’s merits was to resist the idea that human beings are through and through the products of the particular culture in which they are reared. Trilling himself, Lasch wrote, “accepted the accuracy of the assertion (while deploring the fact) that modern man is almost wholly the product of social relations or culture, and he held up this condition against an idealized past when personal integrity was allegedly intact and a healthy savagery made men resistant to total socialization.” But, says Lasch, Trilling is wrong about this. Total socialization is a myth, and the truth is more nearly the reverse of what Trilling supposed. It is “the precariousness of socialization” that we should attend to and the virtue of Freud is that he reminds us that the price we pay for civilization is that we must discipline our instinctual life.
It is no wonder that the readers of Haven in a Heartless World found it hard to decide whether Lasch had become a conservative in his middle years. On the one hand he attacked the bland pieties of 1950s social science with the weapons that Marx and Freud had provided for the use of the radicals; on the other he drew the moral that children needed disciplining and authority even more than they needed nurturance and emotional security. Or better, he argued, if they were really to be loved, and to possess lasting emotional security, they needed to internalize the authority of their parents and so develop characters capable of a properly adult existence.
Women and the Common Life contains no novelties, even though it contains some surprises. It is something like an extended appendix to Haven in a Heartless World, and is best read alongside that rather alarming book. It consists of nine essays on topics ranging over seven centuries and a great many disparate issues. The first essay is on the querelles des femmes—the three-centuries-long debate over marriage and adultery that was sparked off by the Roman de la Rose—and the last five pieces are on contemporary feminism and the contemporary family. The essays take up eighteenth-century anxieties about clandestine marriage, the virtues of progressivism, the wickedness of the liberal welfare state, and the “inexhaustible” market in self-pitying works on gender—the remark occurs in a discussion of new books on masculinity, in which Lasch speaks surprisingly kindly and persuasively of Robert Bly’s Iron John but as unkindly as one might expect of much else. The collection is welcome, and not only because almost everything of Lasch’s is worth reading and this is about the last of his work that we shall see.
Much of the value of the book lies in the way it fills out our understanding of Lasch. One of the few themes that run through all of his work is his hatred of those who would like to take over our lives in order to have them run smoothly, happily, and efficiently. The New Radicalism in America (1965) was very unkind about the early twentieth-century movement for “social control,” associated with E.A. Ross. Ross was an economist who is famous in the history of academic freedom for having stood his ground when Leland Stanford’s widow demanded that the president of Stanford University should sack him for advocating the nationalization of the railroads. He was also an outspoken racist, and wished for a world in which the inefficient were got rid of while the efficient led productive and cooperative lives in an efficiently managed society. When he wrote The New Radicalism, Lasch was suspicious of anything that sounded at all like a plea for the scientific remodeling of society, because it seemed to him to be a plea to allow experts to take over the lives of ordinary people, and to remake the powerless so that they might better serve the interests of the powerful.
In The New Radicalism, even John Dewey’s appeals to “science” aroused Lasch’s suspicions for the same reason; it sounded to him as though education was to be used for the production of cannon fodder for the corporate economy, and Lasch wanted none of it. Robert Westbrook, a younger colleague of Lasch’s, persuaded, or half-persuaded, Lasch at the end of his life that Dewey was better understood as a theorist of participatory democracy than as a defender of a scientific smoothing out of social tensions and conflicts. But if Lasch changed his mind about where Dewey stood in the gallery of rogues and heroes, he did not move an inch on his absolute loathing of all attempts to hand over our private lives to the ministrations of “experts.”
What is interestingly difficult is to know what image of a successful human life, lived without the benefit of professional helpers, Lasch really had. His essays on “love, marriage, and feminism”—as the subtitle has it—don’t quite answer that question, but they do provide answers to many questions that bear on it. The most important is what Lasch thought the place of women must be in what he would have thought of as a decent society. Lasch’s writings always seemed to come from a strongly masculine perspective. The Freudian vision of the family to which he was attached focused quite narrowly on the violent desire of the male infant for his mother; it was the classical Oedi-pal story that Lasch found illuminating. He also found convincing Freud’s attempt to explain the way a child acquired the desire to master the world: he would find it impossible to satisfy his sexual desires in a more direct way. At this end of the twentieth century, most of us find it impossible wholeheartedly to embrace this account of the genesis of our enjoyment of successful work, and by extension the genesis of other forms of world-mastery in politics, sport, or warfare. It is not mere political correctness that makes us uneasy.
Not only does such a perspective seem to leave out the intellectual achievements, the everyday diligence, the political participation, and the sporting prowess of half the human race, it also seems to rest on a decidedly one-sided view of what the family is about. It makes, one might think, entirely too much of the struggle of father and son, and runs the risk of seeing the family only as a means by which the child learns after a struggle to internalize the voice of his father as his own conscience, and then to stride into the world as a self-disciplined being. Mothers seem to be either irrelevant to this process, other than as an occasion for Oedipal conflict, or else positively damaging to the child’s chances of growing up to be a functioning adult.
Indeed, mother-centered families were condemned by Lasch. One of his more alarming thoughts was that all American families were beginning to approximate to the condition of the family in the black ghetto. That is, “the failure to internalize parental authority” was a feature, not only of the dangerous and violent ghetto society, but of white middle-class society, too. Middle-class society was itself dangerous because the family could not protect its members from economic insecurity, crime, and a variety of cultural assaults:
Middle-class “Momism,” a muted version of black “matriarchy,” can be understood as a product of the general deterioration of the social environment. In a dangerous world from which the family can no longer protect its members—a world, moreover, in which exploitation dominates even friendship, love, and marriage—children find it more and more difficult to form secure and loving ties to their parents…. Fear of maternal abandonment underlies the frantic search for psychic survival, which has replaced the traditional virtues of work, thrift, and achievement as the essence of the bourgeois ethic.
It is not hard to see why many women readers found such a passage off-putting. It seemed altogether too backward-looking, and decidedly unfriendly to the campaign for equality both within marriage and beyond it that liberal feminists have waged for a hundred years. It can all too easily look as though Lasch’s picture of the ideal family is one in which father rules and mother offers a measured affection to the children. If Lasch thought that the ideal family was built around a secular version of “He for God, and she for God through him,” neither liberals nor feminists would have much time for him.
Perhaps surprisingly, Lasch turns out to have strong sympathies for some versions of liberal feminism in Women and the Common Life, particularly in “Bourgeois Domesticity,” an engaging comparative essay on the late-eighteenth-century debate over the rights of women between Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More. An unkind critic might point out that one of the heroines of the essay thought of herself as an opponent of feminism, but that would be unfair. It is more nearly true that Lasch turns the anti-feminist Hannah More into a feminist in spite of herself. Lasch very neatly brings out what More and Wollstonecraft had in common—an emphasis on sturdy, sensible, middle-class values, a deep hostility to “fashion,” and a contempt for the loose morals and exploitative habits of the aristocracy. Of course, Lasch acknowledges that Hannah More saw herself as the defender of Christian marriage and a critic of Mary Wollstonecraft’s enthusiasm for the political emancipation of women. Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1791, and More’s Strictures in 1799. More’s book was affected by the political panic that seized much of Britain in the 1790s, and she could hardly have thought well of Wollstonecraft, who all her life moved in radical circles. But as Lasch observes,
More was put off not so much by the ideas advanced in The Vindication of the Rights of Woman as by Wollstonecraft’s personal history: her scandalous affair with Gilbert Imlay, her suicide attempts, her unconventional marriage to the notorious anarchist and freethinker William Godwin.
Their views on marriage turn out to be strikingly similar. One reason was that they are un-Romantic; neither believed women were going to exercise a benign influence over the world by seducing men into a compliance with women’s wishes that they would not rationally give. Wollstonecraft accused Rousseau of wanting to make women “beautiful, innocent, and silly,” and More shared her hostility to him. Though her own impulses let her down—until she met Godwin, Wollstonecraft was irresistibly drawn to men who betrayed her—her ideal was sober to a degree; women must marry for friendship, live to work whether at home or elsewhere, distrust the passion of the moment, and learn to wish for the respect which they should know how to earn. It is true that she also thought that women should take an active role in politics, and Hannah More emphatically thought they should not, but Lasch is right to say that on the question of marriage they were on the same side, and against upper-class sensuality and frivolity, just as they were against an excess of sensibility.
Christopher Lasch’s daughter, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, who has edited this collection and written a deft and useful introduction, writes that her father insisted that part of his purpose in writing about women’s role in “the common life” over a long historical period was to steer a careful line between two opposed, and in Lasch’s eyes, equally misguided, positions. One holds that “the woman question” has only just been asked, the other that “gender” is the central, perennially illuminating question that should be the basis for analyzing society. Lasch agreed that changes in the family, uncertainties about the basis of marriage, puzzles about the nature of sexual attraction, and much else have indeed been subjects of discussion and dispute for centuries. What he resisted is the thought that the history of that discussion can be cramped into the frame of “the history of patriarchy.”
Part of the reason is obvious enough: if we start off knowing that what we are going to discover is one more variation on patriarchal oppression, the only interest that historical investigation possesses is in deciding what sort of oppression we have uncovered. Another part of the reason is that Lasch resisted the view that women were trapped in the home until their recent participation in the paid workforce emancipated them:
In reality, full-time motherhood—the rejection of which touched off the latest wave of feminist agitation in the sixties—was something new and historically unprecedented. It was largely a product of the rapid growth of suburbs after World War II, and the feminist revival initiated by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique originated as a direct response, often a very self-conscious response, not to the age-old oppression of women, but to the suburbanization of the American soul. Only later did the feminist movement come to understand the condition it sought to change—the division of labor that confined women to the home—as a “patriarchal” system that could be found, with minor variations, in all times and places.
Lasch particularly wanted to rescue turn-of-the-century women from the condescension of their daughters and granddaughters. He thought that Betty Friedan had understood perfectly well, but her successors had forgotten, that “work” was not the same thing as paid work, and that women had for generations done a great deal of unpaid work outside the home. The women who fought the turn-of-the-century battles to improve working conditions for women, to introduce temperance legislation, to rid the streets of prostitutes, and the like may often have had political opinions we do not care for, but they surely were not trapped at home, and they were surely working extremely hard.
But one might go on to ask why Lasch was so hostile to “housewifery.” The answer is twofold at least. In the first place, he thought that women should not spend all their time caring for their children and their homes. It was bad for children to be the object of such obsessive attention; and he thought—many women might wince at this—that a lot of women’s housework was essentially make-work, much as a lot of the paid work of their husbands was intended to keep them busy rather than to produce anything useful. Perhaps more importantly, Lasch’s emphasis on “the common life” meant that he wanted women to play an equal part with men in keeping the community in good repair, as he thought they had done in an earlier age. That view in turn was part of a broader dislike of the introspective, child-centered family of the postwar American suburb. The modern family had come to be the “haven in a heartless world” that his earlier book described because the world of work was impersonal, unfulfilling, and routinized. Since the family could not be an adequate refuge from the world of work, and was in fact becoming less and less secure a haven, what was needed was a different sort of politics, aimed at the restoration of a more satisfying public life and more satisfying work.
Arguing that case posed an interesting problem for Lasch. Were women to engage in just the same politics as men, or was there a distinctively female political role? Lasch raised the question of the equality of the sexes when he argued that feminists in the early nineteenth century who wished to claim basic political rights for women had to insist on the likeness of men and women, while feminists at the end of the century who wanted to find women a special role in political life had swung toward emphasizing their difference from men—or rather, their moral superiority.
Neither in these essays nor anywhere else would Lasch commit himself to a clear statement about the equality of the sexes in the abstract. What he was willing to do, and does here, was demolish sentimental accounts of women’s moral superiority over men. In the essay “Gilligan’s Island” he takes on Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, published in 1982, and Meeting at the Crossroads, the study of adolescent schoolgirls that she published in 1992. In In a Different Voice Gilligan claimed to have discovered that women habitually assessed the world and their own behavior differently from men. The difference was very like what others such as the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg had observed—men appealed to rules, justice, and rights, while women worried about other people’s feelings; Kohlberg treated the difference as evidence that women rarely attained the “highest” stage of moral reasoning, whereas Gilligan insisted that women had a different ethical code, not a worse one. Indeed, she came close to reversing Kohlberg’s rankings.
Lasch denied that Gilligan (or Kohlberg) had discovered what they claimed. He thought Kohlberg’s original work was bad social science attached to inept moral philosophy; to accept it, and merely object to its implications for women’s ethical standing, was worse. The confusion was compounded, moreover, both because Gilligan’s evidence contradicted her thesis—men were notably eager to talk about relationships and women eager to insist on their rights—and because she herself needed the language of rights if she was to insist on women’s right to have their perspective on the world taken seriously. Lasch is severe on the implications:
The effect of her analysis is to reassert double standards of competence, performance, and moral development while demanding respect for women’s rights. Like Kohlberg, she gropes for a morality that transcends the conventional opposition between egoism and altruism. But she does not understand (any more than he does) that the only escape from the polarity of egoism and altruism lies in the selflessness experienced by those who lose themselves in their work, in the effort to master a craft or a body of knowledge, or in the acceptance of a formidable challenge that calls on all their resources.
Lasch thought that Gilligan’s Meeting at the Crossroads showed the same flaws. The book was a study of teenage girls at a private school in Cleveland. What Gilligan noticed—many others had commented on the same thing both in fiction and in social science surveys—was that pre-teen girls are bold, resourceful, imaginative, and energetic, while a couple of years later they are timid and depressed, socially conformist, and uninterested in their schoolwork. Gilligan’s explanation is that their lack of self-esteem stems from the way adults impose standards on the girls that they haven’t had a chance to think through for themselves.
Lasch, unsurprisingly, thought that the problem was that very few standards of any sort were to be seen at the school described by Gilligan. Such as there were, they were not imposed by self-confident adults but by the malign social influences all too well known to the parents of teenage girls. The “popular girls” formed a clique that offered companionship and social approval in return for complete subservience to their views on every subject. In particular, they told other girls whom to like and whom to dislike, and so exercised an impressive emotional tyranny. Thinking that relationships really are the most important thing in the world reinforces the power of adolescent cliques. What might break that power is not endless meetings to repair relationships or strategies to enhance self-esteem, but a concentration on the one thing that schools are quite well suited to deliver: a proper education, strong on impersonal standards of excellence.
Do we end Women and the Common Life knowing exactly what Lasch thought? Plainly not. He sneers a little in his footnotes at the readers of Haven in a Heartless World who thought that he was nostalgic for the nineteenth-century family; but he does not do a great deal to defuse the complaint that it was less their careless reading of what he wrote that caused the confusion than his own ambivalence. In this book, too, readers must watch their step. The emphasis on the need to measure ourselves by severe, impersonal standards of excellence is softened a little by a reminder that men, too, have nurturing impulses—though Lasch is quick to insist that they should express them by some other means than swallowing the worse sorts of sentimental feminism. Lasch’s antipathy to anything that smacks of moral relativism is offset by an acceptance of the obvious truth that people have different talents and different tastes and can best make themselves both happy and useful by discovering what these are and developing them as best they can. If Lasch sometimes sounds as though he believes we should spend every evening at a committee meeting, he also insists that people “lost in their work” are valuable members of the community, too. He did not think that we must spend all our time seeking what William James baptized as “the moral equivalent of war.”
What remains unnerving is the uncompromising bleakness of his assessment of contemporary America and its inhabitants. Thinking, as he did, that the central problem of any society which attempts to run a capitalist economy is that of securing assent to an unjust and inegalitarian distribution of its benefits and burdens, he held the once fashionable, and now wildly unfashionable, view that capitalism and democracy are very awkward bedfellows. Liberalism—in the form of the postwar American welfare state rather than the ideals of John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville—tries to find a form of authority somewhere between outmoded patriarchy and modern dictatorship. On the one hand, Keynes offered the hope that discontent might be stifled by prosperity; on the other, Freud—diluted appropriately—offered the hope that misery might be alleviated by the therapeutic ministrations of psychological experts. Lasch thought neither provided a lasting solution. They destroyed the willingness of the citizenry to participate, destroyed the capacity to sacrifice for the common good, and produced a sullen, apathetic electorate. Looking ahead, he saw the dilemma nobody wants to confront.
The prospects for the liberal state, in its therapeutic, as in its Keynesian manifestation, are not good. In the days ahead, it will either have to adopt more openly dictatorial forms of control or give way to a more truly democratic system.
Those of us who suspect that the liberal state, like its predecessors, has a greater capacity for mildly unsatisfactory muddling along than Lasch gave it credit for should be particularly grateful for Lasch’s skepticism. If our lives are not quite as impoverished as he thought, they are surely less rich, less strenuously interesting, and less fulfilling than they might be. And even if government is not wholly incapable of helping us to lead happier lives, it is surely more inept than it need be. Disaster may not be just around the corner, but Lasch was right to remind us that even when we are not in the middle of a slump, beset by race riots, or fighting unwinnable wars, there is more and worse misery all around us than we like to look at.
November 6, 1997