Defending Lasch, Left and/or Right

by Russell Arben Fox on October 8, 2009 · 28 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Philosophers & Saints,Writers & Poets

lasch

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS. No one, I think, has ever summed up the longing for a life with front porches–the localist longing which is this blog’s raison d’être–better than Christopher Lasch did, in this plaintive passage from his masterpiece, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, when he spoke about his and his wife’s hopes for their family life when they were young:

“We wanted our children to grow up in a kind of extended family, or at least with an abundance of “significant others.” A house full of people; a crowded table ranging across the generations; four-hand music at the piano; nonstop conversation and cooking; baseball games and swimming in the afternoon; long walks after dinner; a poker game or Diplomacy or charades in the evening, all these activities mixing adults and children–that was our idea of a well-ordered household and more specifically of a well-ordered education. We had no great confidence in the schools; we knew that if our children were to acquire any of the things we set store by–joy in learning, eagerness for experience, the capacity for love and friendship–they would have to learn the better part of it at home. For that very reason, however, home was not to be thought of simply as the “nuclear family.” Its hospitality would have to extend far and wide, stretching its emotional resources to the limit (p. 32).”

With this passage’s reference to extended families and its suspicion of an over-reliance upon public schools, with its invocation of moral and cultural virtues and of dozens of humble, bourgeois practices (evening meals, organized sports, family games, etc.), it could probably be labeled–by those who usually identify with the left, that is–as either a nice but harmless bit of right-wing nostalgia at best, or as a canny bit of “traditional values” agitprop at worst. But it’s neither, of course, because Lasch was himself a product of the left side of our confusing and often inaccurate ideological divisions.

Though he never took socialism particularly seriously, and though he spent most of his career probing the pathologies and misunderstandings of American liberalism, his fundamental political and economic aspirations were generally clear: he liked democracy, and believed in equality (among his last political acts were a vote for Bill Clinton in 1992, and speaking out in favor of a “huge jobs program” in the pages of Salmagundi in 1994). But such convictions don’t lay to rest his critics on the left, however.

A couple of months ago Crooked Timber, a well-known left-liberal academic group blog, hosted a symposium discussing a terrific collection of essays by George Scialabba, What Are Intellectuals Good For? In that book, Scialabba–a wonderfully smart and incisive reviewer of and commenter on the intellectual currents of American life–provides sharp takes on all sorts of writers and thinkers, from (moving left to right) Richard Rorty, Edward Said and Irving Howe to William F. Buckley, Victor Davis Hanson and Allan Bloom.

The only author, though, to receive two full essays all to himself is Lasch, whom Scialabba clearly considers a hero of sorts, and this made some of the respondents to Scialabba mad. Rich Yeselson, in particular, really let him have it, shaking his head at the sympathy a leftist like Scialabba shows for a man like Lasch, who believed the real hope for democracy and equality was to be found in local cultures, intact families, supportive neighborhoods, independent labor and ownership…in other words, in ordinary–and therefore, it must be admitted, usually rather defensive, and perhaps often somewhat exclusionary–producers and workers:

“Because all of [Lasch's] hardy “Artisans against Innovation”…plus the populists, plus the virtuous small “producers” have been wiped out by the early part of the 20th century, and because these folks were all proud of their skills and because they were ethnically homogeneous, Lasch can’t explain how the hell millions of unskilled, ethnically heterogeneous workers formed the CIO in the 1930s–and with it the backbone of the American middle class for the next two generations….So why does Scialabba let Lasch off the hook? Perhaps because he seems drawn most to writers and thinkers whom Sartre might have called the “unsalvageable,” after Hugo [Barine], the disillusioned leftist who goes down in a hale of Stalinist bullets at the end of Dirty Hands while shouting that he is “unsalvageable” (as opposed to those The Party cynically deems “salvageable” for its own instrumental purposes)….So Lasch, shouting out the Great Refusal to all of modernity, is another in this long line of gutsy truth tellers who push against the grain of the conventional wisdom. And Scialabba gives him bonus points for his unsalvageability.

“Way too many. Lasch builds a vast transportation device that does not move. His fantasy of a producerist ideology somehow redistributing wealth and power in a multi-polar world dominated by large pools of capital is just goofy. Lasch fears the very State that is the only entity capacious enough to circumscribe the power of private interests. He’s all dreams, he’s got no plans, and we want the plans….The people are busy–I’ve spent a lot of time around them. I’ve got a pretty good feel for this. Their jobs suck and they’re exhausted. When they get it together to do something amazing like build the CIO or create the Civil Rights movement, it’s a mitzvah composed of all kinds of things, especially incredibly tenacious, labor intensive organizing. Some of them are wonderful, and some of them are awful, and most of them are in between–kind of like everybody else. People who actually spent time around working class people…do not think of them or write about them in the way Lasch did….Lasch spent too much time trying to demonstrate that some stratums of the downtrodden were right or noble or resistant to the encroachments on their way of life. [Richard] Rorty spent his time just trying to argue against those with power who were trying to screw them, regardless of whether the downtrodden themselves were so wonderful or their way of life was so great. Because frequently they aren’t and it isn’t. A lot of local knowledge isn’t so humane….The world has always been a scary place, and it’s always been the fit though few who have undertaken to make stuff better. And, over time, they pick up some fellow travelers, and, oddly enough, things do get better.”

This is, of course, a particularly influential strand of the liberal progressive mentality in a nutshell: the conviction that most people, most of the time, are too invested in taking care of their own, or too exhausted by the simple demands of survival, to care much about systematic exploitation, and hence that any real “progress” towards equality and democracy is almost always going to have to come from the “fit though few,” not from ordinary people, in their own places, speaking from their own limits. It is a mentality that Lasch denies the truth of, root and branch.

Genuine democratic and egalitarian improvement in the lives of human beings–ending slavery, improving working conditions, respecting civil rights, providing education–always has at its heart, Lasch maintains, the activism of men and women from more or less well-defined communities, demanding independence and respect. It should be noted, though, that unlike some critics of the progressive ideal, Lasch himself didn’t think that the so-named “Progressives” of American history were themselves so thoroughly addicted to that liberal progressive worldview that they failed to recognize the communitarian and cultural undercurrents which efforts to better one’s own and others’ lives must invariably draw upon. He wrote, in his last complete work, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, that:

“Progressive thought was lively and suggestive precisely because so much of it resisted the political orthodoxies associated with the idea of progress. A number of important progressives refused to accept the division of society into a learned and laboring class as the price of progress. Nor did they embrace the welfare state as the only way of protecting workers’ interests. They admitted the force of the conservative objection that welfare programs would promote a “sense of dependence,” in Herbert Croly’s words, but they rejected the conservatives’ claim that the “wage-earner’s only hope is to become a property owner.” Some of the responsibility for “operating the business mechanism of modern life,” Croly maintained, would have to be transferred to the working class–or, rather, wrested by the workers from their employers since their “independence…would not amount to much” it is were “handed down to them by the state or by employers’ associations” (p. 82).”

So readers of Lasch–perhaps especially Front Porch Republic readers of Lasch, drawn to him because of his populist case for an economy of producers, a society of communities and neighborhoods and families–remain confused. He praises Progressive reforms, but attacks the dole. He speaks glowingly of strikes and labor unrest, and calls it all “conservative.” How to defend such a person, when you don’t know which direction the target is facing when attacks come from left and right?

Many of Lasch’s fans have tried, of course. Alan Ryan, in an old essay in The New York Review of Books, wrote that Lasch’s “populist values…defy categorization,” 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.” Jeremy Beer, in an essay for Modern Age a few years ago, suggested that The True and Only Heaven was Lasch’s “attempt to provide a pedigree for a more radical, more democratic–and more consistent–brand of cultural conservatism,” one that combined economic leveling with traditional and local ways of life.

Kenneth Anderson, in a Times Literary Supplement essay published soon after Lasch’s death, seemed to want to remove Lasch from his frequent association with communitarian critics of modernity, and align him instead with the left-libertarian cause, emphasizing his “anti-statist and anti-capitalist” teachings, suggesting that it wasn’t so much radical self-interest and individualism which Lasch opposed, as it was “authoritarianism, the peculiar form of communitarianism emerging from the conjunction of state and therapy,” and concluding that the public virtues Lasch rightly believed to be necessary for democracy could never come from such communitarian-praised actions of the 1990s as “Bob Dole’s railing against Hollywood or Bill Clinton’s preaching against pregnancy to black teenage girls,” but rather that “communities [must be allowed] to reformulate themselves, if indeed they will and along such lines as they will.”

Which, really, isn’t at all an untrue claim…but it is an incomplete one, and Lasch’s own writings show why it is incomplete. While that may not settle Lasch’s place once and for all–which is a bad goal anyway; isn’t the whole point of criticism such as Lasch’s to “unsettle” us?–responding to this particular claim, at least, may make it a little clearer exactly how we who love our local places should defend Christopher Lasch.

The one time that Lasch engaged with communitarian thought in a sustained way (in the chapter “Communitarianism or Populism? The Ethic of Compassion and the Ethic of Respect,” in Revolt of the Elites), he described his disagreements with the movement as a “difference in emphasis” rather than one of “irreconcilable opposition.” In fact he has many good things to say about some of the movement’s foremost thinkers, including Robert Bellah and Amitai Etzioni, and lumps communitarianism together with populism as “third way” projects, “reject[ing] both the market and the welfare state.”

At its roots, his real reservations with communitarian arguments are, in essence, class reservations: as he saw it, communitarianism emerges from an academic, sociological perspective, and tends to look upon the crucial virtues which participation in the traditions and rough equality of decent communities can teach people as something needful and precious, and thus in need of conservation and compassionate support. Whereas populism, on his reading of its arguments, is more defensive, radical, and grounded in a defiant expression of the limits of life in a decidedly non-elite (usually, though not always, rural) working world.

Academic defenders of community can be misled by top-down thinking, missing the essential structures–including the bottom-level socio-economic class structures–which populists intuitively know that their communities depend upon if their expressions of respect, competence, and judgment–all essential parts of their contribution to democracy–are not to be blown away by elite and/or intellectual reconstructions of social life. He writes:

Communitarians regret the collapse of social trust but often fail to see that trust, in a democracy, can only be grounded in mutual respect. They properly insist that rights have to be balanced by responsibility, but they seem to be more interested in the responsibility of the community as a whole–its responsibility, say, to its least fortunate members–than in the responsibility of individuals….But it is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. In the name of sympathetic understanding, we tolerate second-rate workmanship, second-rate habits of thought, and second-rate standards of conduct….Democracy in our time is more likely to die of indifference than of intolerance. Tolerance and understanding are important virtues, but they must not become and excuse for apathy (pp. 106-107).

The ability to make judgments is a function of maturity, and maturity comes, Lasch argues, drawing upon both history and psychology, when individuals depart infantile worlds of helplessness and instant gratification, and instead come to appreciate–and eventually fiercely protect–the chastened lessons of experience, struggle, and the limited victories of life. An environment where wealth and respect is fluid, mostly untied to practical disciplines requiring time to master but instead rewarded to those who excel in pleasing or manipulating their human and intellectual surrounding, will result in gaps between winners and losers that no person can consider legitimate, thus making any attempt to impose community-wide standards and responsibilities slightly ridiculous and primitive to members of the new class of elites; it will be obvious to those in power that those ordinary folk who have not made the meritocracy work for them, and entered into the world of financial and social opportunity and mobility which it makes possible, will likely have no grasp the modern world. Which, of course, in turn leads to resentment, and a poisoning of the very virtues which a localized economy of limits once taught.

Lasch’s overall conclusion, in analyzing this process, is that democracy needs a defense of community that is more specific than the kind which some sorts of arguably condescending, vaguely redistributive, communitarianism promises; it needs some local, historical basics, and bite. He concludes:

“Back to basics” could mean a return to class warfare (since it is precisely the basics that our elites reject as hopelessly outmoded) or at least to a politics in which class became the overriding issue. Needless to say, the elites that set the tone of American politics, even when they disagree about everything else, have a common stake in suppressing a politics of class. Much will depend on whether communitarians continue to acquiesce in this attempt to keep class issues out of politics or whether they will come to see that gross inequalities, as populists have always understood, are incompatible with any form of community that would now be recognized as desirable and that everything depends, therefore, on closing the gap between elites and the rest of the nation (p. 114).

I think this is unfair to many communitarian writers, at least some of whom have very clearly articulated the impossibility of preserving the democratic and egalitarian potential of community membership in an environment where often unregulated and technologically unlimited capitalism ruins any sense of common life between the classes, and thus often ruins as well any possibility of collective, virtue-teaching participation, the sort where–as the quote at the beginning of this post emphasized–families could take a secure place in, and thus contribute to, a wider context of life. But whether you call it populist or communitarian or something else entirely, the driving charge of Lasch’s critique is clear.

As he says in his introductory essay in Revolt of the Elites, “a democratic society cannot allow unlimited accumulation…civic equality presuppose[s] at least a rough approximation of economic equality” (p. 22). Scialabba sums up Lasch’s overall claims similarly in one of the essays in What Are Intellectuals Good For: “[Lasch's] ideal has at least two radical implications. The first is that democracy requires a rough equality of conditions. Dignity and virtue cannot survive indefinitely amid extremes of wealth and poverty; only someone with a paltry conception of virtue could believe otherwise. The second is that the democratic character can only flourish in a society constructed to human scale” (pp. 182-183).

What follows from such a diagnosis? Good question, and one might be justified in thinking that Lasch’s vocation as a critic too-easily saved him from the harder work of answering it, and thereby building up some alternatives. (In this, he was perhaps taking too much comfort in being in the same position as his populist forerunners; on the last page of Progress and Its Critics, he called the populist tradition failure to develop a strong political or economic theory “its most conspicuous weakness”–p. 532.)

But it is not as though answers are impossible to find in Lasch’s oeuvre: he wanted to see jobs defended, wages secured, trade limited, cultures respected, neighborhoods supported, manual labor revived, proprietorship encouraged, industry regulated, corporations restricted, families embraced…and he wanted, to every degree possible, this done in a manner which did not rob authority and integrity from (quoting John Dewey–another Progressive!–here) “the local homes of mankind” (Revolt, p. 84). Complicated? Obviously.

Some of the above would require broad reforms and expensive legislation and politically unpopular stands, while some of it–perhaps the even more difficult parts of it–would depend upon individual and family sacrifices and changes. Is the goal itself impossible? Yeselson thinks so; in one of his further responses to Scialabba, he insisted that “Lasch somehow thinks, that in the name of a greater sense of self and stronger connection to one’s productive capabilities, you can mitigate the great productive power of capitalism–but yet have plenty that will be left over to expropriate from the expropriators. It doesn’t work that way–dividing up less leads not to serenely making your own buttermilk, but to fascism.” That’s quite a leap there–a not-completely-unreasonable leap, but a big leap nonetheless. One can only hope that Yeselson is wrong, and we can make compromises which move us in a Laschian direction, seeing as how our current global environmental and economic situation suggests what we will have to accept “dividing up less” anyway.

Scialabba, assessing the final value of Lasch’s perspective, suggests that at our present moment we have only three options for the future: “1) ecological catastrophe; 2) a domestic and international caste system, with extreme and permanent inequality, harshly enforced; or 3) a voluntary renunciation of universal material abundance as our goal and of mass production and centralized authority as the means”…then adding that “[o]bviously, only the last is even potentially a democratic future.” Assuming that people who like localism like it at least in part because of its democratic promise, then defending Lasch’s fierce commitment to economic and civic equality seems to be a necessary step in any vision that includes front porches.

Lasch’s connection of democracy and community to equality–as both a prerequisite and a result–moves him definitely to the left, I think (making “equal prospects for a flourishing life” a central value being almost stereotypically a left-wing attitude rather than a right-wing one), but it’s an odd left, a left that owes more (and more directly) to Rousseau’s moralistic concern with how modern economic life could warp private life and the development of individual character (a point Ryan made in the aforementiond NYRB essay). A left conservatism, perhaps? Or maybe, more simply, just different, more serious, religious left? Paul Gottfried, in a long, thoughtful and lyrical reminiscence about Lasch (and others), wrote that Lasch’s ultimate goal was to articulate “a religiously based communitarianism that could serve as an alternative to multinational capitalism.”

Why religiously based? Because, it seems, he doubted that individuals would be able to recognize and adhere to the limits of local communities (and thus receive and be able to contribute to the virtuous blessing of such membership) when confronted by market-and-technology-driven inducements (or delusions) of personal liberation and opportunity…unless, that is, there was a tangible belief that such limits–moral, social, and economic–were reflections of, or perhaps even instantiations of, a higher order of things. It is actually at this point that Scialabba’s defense of Lasch hits its most difficult patch: “[Does Lasch] propose to resurrect ‘the theological context’–the existence of God, the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul? The Covenant and the Incarnation? Must we believe in order to be saved? If so, then we are lost. We cannot believe the unbelievable, even to salvage our culture” (What Are Intellectuals Good For?, p. 172).

If we assume from the outset, of course, that religious belief–perhaps especially the kind of beliefs which sustained many community-grounded populist and progressive pushes towards greater democracy and equality throughout American history–is “unbelievable,” than it would appear that Lasch’s whole oeuvre is compromised. His close analysis of the role families and local communities do and should play in developing democratic citizenship and economic egalitarianism won’t hold water, if there is no reason for anyone to ever stay on the farm once they’ve seen the city. We might as well accept Yeselson’s–and many others’–criticisms, and consign Lasch to the dustbin as we ponder strategies for extending justice. Or else, of course, we could just give up on social and economic egalitarianism entirely. Which if, to be honest, where the majority of devotees of localism probably already are, anyway.

But, so long as belief has a chance, Lasch’s criticisms remain pertinent for making a defense of his great populist/communitarian insight: that local producers and democratic egalitarians needn’t be enemies after all.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Patrick J. Deneen October 9, 2009 at 5:32 am

Russell,
Thanks for this terrific piece. This makes at least three “Porchers” who regard Lasch as something of an intellectual hero and model. I have previously published on Lasch in a 2004 issue of “First Things.” The essay is available on here: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/christopher-lasch-and–the-limits-of-hope-35 (I didn’t give the essay this title, which I think is inaccurate); I also devoted the major part of the penultimate chapter of my book “Democratic Faith” to Lasch.

My own teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, shared many of Lasch’s basic views (albeit, perhaps without the admiration for Progressives, among others, and a more robust religious belief – though, of course, Lasch was a superb critic of religious and political heterodoxy, especially Gnosticism). Another Porcher – and his daughter – Susan McWilliams and I are on the process of bringing out several volumes of Carey’s prolific but far flung essays. His, I believe, will be an additional voice in articulating this alternative to the current bankrupt Left/Right configuration, although I can foresee that the complaint will still be the absence of a set of plans. Before we can make any such plans, we need to understand our situation rightly, and only in so doing, begin to change our behavior.

avatar Russell Arben Fox October 9, 2009 at 7:26 am

Thanks for the kind words, Patrick. I don’t think Lasch at all uncritically admired the Progressives, but he–I think rightly–saw at least some of them carrying forward the populist project, exploring different ways to realize the promises of local community (namely, democracy and equality) in a continually changing socio-economic world.

As for plans, I agree with all you say. Yes, we need plans, we’ll always need them. But if we don’t understand who we are, and why we behave the way we do, we’ll never be able to move towards becoming the sort of people that could actually implement said plans…and a people who can’t implement even the best plans might as well just have no plans at all.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 10, 2009 at 1:22 pm

A fine essay Russell, it reminds me of my own Recovering Republican enjoyment of Izzy Stone. Smart and eloquent is smart and eloquent no matter the political category. But , as to Lasch….a summary analysis and proof of his good sense…and unfortunate clairvoyance : “Democracy in our time is more likely to die of indifference than of intolerance. Tolerance and understanding are important virtues but they must not become an excuse for apathy”.

avatar Bob Cheeks October 12, 2009 at 9:09 am

Arben, excellent!
If, then, we are engaged in the search for truth as Prof. Lasch was we must recognize that the truth that is illuminated is representative of the truth of the Cosmos. Man, be he philosopher, priest,or teacher engenders the truth, he brings it up for his fellows to examine, to know, but sadly most live somewhere between the libido dominandi and the superbia vitae and are by their nature immune to, if not appalled by, the truth and its reality.
And, this is why democracy fails, why the state always becomes an oppressor.

avatar John Willson October 12, 2009 at 10:22 pm

It is indeed a good essay. Passionate and searching, and asking all the right things. I can describe to you the streets that Lasch and his family must have lived and walked in Avon and Pittsford. Somewhat south and a little east is the heart of the Finger Lakes, a place where up until about the time the Lasches moved to the University of Rochester it would have been quite likely that they could have lived the “extended family” life that is quoted from his “The True and Only Heaven” above. I didn’t know him, although I’ve read most of his books. I get a good sense that I would have liked him, liked to be around him and learn and listen. I really don’t believe, however, that he meant what he said about the extended family life–or perhaps I should say that he couldn’t have sustained that belief without being grounded in something other than Marx, Freud, Hofstadter, and moving. Grounded, means grounded, just as conservative means conserving. It seems to me that most of his life was lived with abstractions, ideas and ideals of “democratic egalitarians” that had quite little to do with the realities of the “local producers” I have known all my life. And without a very real and particular and personal God is family really possible?

avatar Russell Arben Fox October 13, 2009 at 8:46 am

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

D.W., thanks for highlighting that particular passage from Lasch–I really believe it’s crucial to understanding the man. He saw all around him individuals and families plagued by sloth, indifference, and community disconnection. Many others would make of that a kind of religious, or at least moral, indictment, and certainly Lasch could adopt the moralistic tone of a prophet, but his indictment was made in regards to democratic and egalitarian ends: we are letting the promise of democracy fade by failing to attend to those things most worth conserving.

Bob, I appreciate your bracing, Voegelinian anti-democratic sentiment, but I’m unwilling to go along with it, as, I suspect, was Lasch. True, most people, most of the time, will be incapable or uninterested in recognizing the truth of things, but that does not mean democracy is doomed to always fail, in all ways. There are, after all, humbler and more superficial and everyday truths, having to do with family life and basic neighborliness, which can hold communities together, and enable them to school their members in the arts of self-government; that is, after all, what most of the populist movement assumes. (One may also argue that such humble, superficial, everyday truths initiate people into deeper ones. That would be Wendell Berry’s claim, I suspect.)

John, beautiful thoughts, but again, as with Bob, I’m going to have to dissent. Of course, who knows what another a person, especially one we can only know today through books, was “really” grounded in? Perhaps there was some operative religious faith in Lasch’s life, which he never truly acknowledged, or only came around to acknowledging obliquely, towards the end of his life. But I think it is just as likely that he really could–as a product of the Depression, as a young husband and father and scholar in the 50s and 60s–look to Marx, et al, and see in them the deep communitarian (Rousseauian?) claims about the antagonism between moral and family development on the one hand, and modern consumer capitalism on the other. I do think you can be conservative and local in the midst of ideas and abstraction which have been mostly appropriated (often wrongly, I believe) by the enemies of conservation and locality. That’s my hope, anyway.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 13, 2009 at 10:34 am

What fascinates me about the use of Marx as a summary pejorative (to me , he was a far better analyst than prescriber) is that there was a time when a broad cross section of odd bedfellows in this country embraced the thought of Marx to varying degrees. Everyone from journalists, professors, hollywood writers, populist midwesterners and a healthy slug of The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers paid attention to what Marx said because it resonated in the years during and just after the Depression and before the Cold War.

Nobody dares mention this but there is a distinct and short linkage between the events of the last decade in the U.S. and its Financialized denouement into penury and the victory over a debauched Soviet carapace, sucked dry of humanity. There is this persistent notion that we in this capitalist society enjoy the fruits of a Free Market and it is to the automatically more prudent notions of this Free Market that we owe our victory over the Soviet menace. This is a half truth. What we owe the victory over the Soviets to is the Soviets own self-defeat. While we might have helped push them more quickly into self-defeat, the fact remains that the Soviets largely blew it for themselves. Meanwhile, in victory, we turned self abuse upon ourselves and have subsequently granted an advantage to the Chinese who will prove themselves very adept at picking and choosing from a variety of working solutions, aided by the efficiencies of despotism over a compliant populace. It is not hard to envision them in the act of giving us enough rope to hang ourselves because we like to pick neat and tidy categories to preserve our operating shibboleth. Reserve currency status will do that to a person. This rigid adherence to myth seems to be the last vestige of our “Can Do” ability.

We practice a Free Market to the extent that the Soviets practiced Marxism …which is to say , edited for the benefit of those in power. This is not an indictment against the Free Market nor a salute to the patently insufficient capabilities of Marxism…it is a rock thrown at the idea that this country, at this time, can continue to afford self-abuse and righteousness in pursuit of a system that has created numerous shortcuts, inside deals and prejudices that have subsumed the efficacy of the original notion. We have a growing segment of the population which insists, quite vociferously…. upon either supporting or opposing political positions that are in direct opposition to their own lives and worse, to the future of their lapsed-republic. Meanwhile, we continue to throw vast quantities of increasingly precarious currency down the rathole of foreign military adventure. We will likely find that this will deliver us into something closer to a straitened Marxism than it does into the halcyon meadows of a Free Market.

In other words, when the 201st Motor Rifle Division of the Soviet military limped over the border in retreat from Afghanistan and soon after, the Berlin Wall was hammered down, the reverberations of the tank tracks and hammers continue to be felt here at home and we remain insistent upon stroking our tidy presumptions in a manner not unlike the Soviets. Marxism and Socialism and Terrorism remain far less a danger to our future security and liberty than our own stubborn insistence upon foreign military projection on the one hand and blithe deficit spending upon the other.

avatar Bob Cheeks October 13, 2009 at 10:59 am

“Marxism and Socialism and Terrorism remain far less a danger to our future security and liberty than our own stubborn insistence upon foreign military projection on the one hand and blithe deficit spending upon the other.”
In theory, I agree. We’d better restore/recapture the reality of our own existence first, e.g. a return to republican ideals. But, it should be apparent even to the most ardent leftist that BO and his cadre of commie followers aren’t the saviors of the republic. It seems they share the same, even a more intense propensity as that of Herr Bush, to police the world…e.g. there is no difference in either foreign policy. And, added to that BO and friends had quadrupled the inchoate spending of the idiot Bush regime!
Further, BO and the communists seek to take over ‘healthcare,’ which means we will have ‘healthcare’ in the manner and method of medicare and medicade which is totally f*cked up! Obviously, BO and his epigonic Marxists followers seek to destroy, then rebuild the federal regime…and boys and girls I’m truly open to argument on this point!
And, DW me thinks the 201st Motor Rifle Divison of the Peoples Glorious Army would have been nicely checked by Army Groupe South’s Herman Goering Div/SS in any direct confrontation even though they did not share the same era!

avatar D.W. Sabin October 13, 2009 at 12:43 pm

The point , Mr. Cheeks is not whether the Red Army or the Nazis were stronger but the fact that there is no place on earth where a person will long embrace an army of occupation over their own brand of local murderous bastards. I recall the cocky Mr. Rumsfeld crowing that we had best start attacking Iraq because we had run out of “targets of opportunity” in Afghanistan. Ha Ha Ha, in other words, these primitives were not worth our time and ammunition. This, of course, is the Afghans principle strength, aside from inhospitable terrain and tribal organization: Possessing few “targets of opportunity” levels the field of engagement to a point where those who possess the greatest technological ability have little, if any real advantage. In fact, they are hobbled by their self-perceived advantage and will see themselves gain enough victories on the back of their technological advantage that they will not notice the wound leaking blood at home nor the enmity growing in theatre around them. Our fighting men and woman on the ground are tremendous but the apparatchiks who control them are fighting an altogether different war and doing it without the sense God gave an Athenian clinging to the debris of his ship sinking off Sicily.

As to the asserted “commies” in the Democrat fold, they have their comrade in the Right’s Trotskyite mercenaries and so the metaphor is, at best, tepid. The Potomac is awash in Bolsheviks and while they may stage partisan debate for fun and show, the general drunken abandon is something enjoyed by both. When, exactly, did you last meet a Republican at the Federal Imperial Court worth a plug kopek? The speed with which they rent office space for their own political consultancy immediately after leaving office is breathtaking. Barred from political consultancy, they resort to Reality Dancing Television. Then there is the press, but another sovietization of Amerika. While our press might not be quite so cheekily serviceable to the Power Edifice as Pravda, it certainly has learned a thing or two about political caution from its teacher. We can go on sharing the seat of power between members of a rogues league and enjoying the thrills of pat partisan hobgoblins, by all means, let the theatre go on.

avatar Bob Cheeks October 13, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Since we’re in agreement that there’s no observable difference in the Bush or Obama foreign policy re: the war(s) in Af and Iraq, e.g. both parties see the USA as the “policeman of the world,” and I quite agree re: your sometimes acrimonious critique of the GOP, I am wondering when the same critique will be slavered on to the Bolshvevik-Dems? Is there some salvageable quality about them that I’ve missed? Do you find them preferable in a pinch? Are you intrigued about the intellectual possibilities inherent in BO?
Also, I would ask you what exactly you would have done as president following 911?

avatar D.W. Sabin October 13, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Cheeks,
1. The Democrats provide self-incriminating evidence quite enough on their own..much as the Republicans do. Neither is preferable over the other to any significant degree.

2. What “intellectual possibilities”? Whether one is mugged by a petulant simpleton bullshitter or a loftily expounding bullshitter makes no difference..one is still mugged.

3. What I would have done after 9/11 in absence of the intelligence possessed by the Executive is academic. Like many, I suckered initially to the dog and pony show of the Bush Administration regarding Iraq but I can tell you this, I have more respect for the U.S. Military than to bleed it while hobbled and use it as a police force to no concrete end within a province that outlasted both the Red Army and Great Britain and I also respect the Republic , its potentials, history, warts and all and so find military adventurism in service to nation building to be a sure route to a hasty bad end. Consequently, I would have offered up every neo-conservative I could lay my hands on as a prisoner exchange to whoever might deliver any valid information on the Terrorists. Its a fair exchange, one wants to conquer the world by Bureaucratic Market Control and the other wants to conquer the world by Jihad. Both think their ideology is more important than mere human life. Everyone of the armchair crusaders should be taken up on their sentiments and loaded in a C5A for delivery to the Hindu Kush. In the end, the Bush Administration, as politicians are wont to do, over-promised and under delivered, flapping their mouths with abandon. Had they acted more confidently, with greater focus on the real enemy, including ourselves…. and kept a poker face, the fright this might have caused could have been productive. The entire episode should have caused a massive re-thinking of our imperial projection and geopolitical outlook at a time when there was unanimous sympathy for us and so maximal maneuvering room but this opportunity for real change was squandered in favor of ill-considered adventurism, unilaterla grabass and simple-minded revenge. I don’t quite know why but even with all the black oil over there, the U.S. Government still cannot bring itself to understand what a tar baby the Levant is. Or maybe it just likes rolling in blood and oil on the lives of the citizen.

avatar Bob Cheeks October 13, 2009 at 3:25 pm

Rev. Sabin, thank you!
However, you kinda drifted on me in my query re: your response to 911. 3,000 dead Americans! Who’s to blame, who’s the “real enemy” and what’s the proper response? Obviously you don’t think it was proper to attack Iraq…who then?
Because if Bush was wrong headed in his response, what should have been done and I’m assuming you don’t agree with the Bush doctrine (taking democracy to the Middle East). 3,000 dead Americans! Turn the other cheek, or destroy our enemies? Or something in-between?
I’m just curious.

avatar John Willson October 13, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Russell, passing over all this about killing folks and getting back to Lasch, do I understand you to bring forth the moral monster Rousseau to tilt against the moral monster..who? Madoff? I’m really not sure of your point here. And in your second-to-last paragraph are you arguing that Lasch’s contribution is to put families and local communities in the service of “democratic citizenship and economic egalitarianism?” If so, his was not a “left conservatism” or any other kind of conserving–it was only a wild sentimental hope that history and human nature can be changed by a funny combination of psychological insight and the application of the right kinds of abstractions. Of course, “democratic citizenship and economic egalitarianism” can mean many things, but most often they mean sappy socialism of one sort or another.

avatar Russell Arben Fox October 13, 2009 at 10:57 pm

D.W., Bob–great discussion! Keep it up.

John, I invoke the “moral monster” Rousseau (is that what he was? I thought he was a brilliant and thoroughly disturbed neurotic who happened to grasp the tragic elements of the modern condition exceptionally well) only to clarify an element of Lasch’s thinking: specifically, that Lasch, like Rousseau, took great umbrage at how he believed modern economic relations and modern culture were undermining what he believed to be the proper course for the moral development of the human individual. The claim isn’t to weigh Rousseau, but rather to simply argue that Lasch, as much as he may have been influenced by Marxist analysis and psychoanalysis, never bought into the historical or clinical determinism of Marx and Freud; he used them as tools to address structural and material obstacles to his moral goals, which very much follows what Rousseau was trying to do, at least as I understand him.

As for Lasch’s prescriptions for modern society themselves, well, you can call them sappy socialism if you’d like; Lasch himself and his students would almost surely disagree with you, but I’m not prepared to argue the point right here. As I read Lasch, he really did believe that a proper understanding of, as you put it, “the right kinds of abstractions” (involving such things as the history of capitalism, personhood, local independence, and property-owning self-respect) would show that families and communities really do help build both economic equality and democracy. You may find his conclusions silly, but that’s what they were: localism defended, as a part of broader defense of egalitarianism and citizenship.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 14, 2009 at 10:18 am

Cheeks,
Attacking Iraq for 9/11 was perhaps one of the dumbest things ever done by the lapsed republic.

One does not “take Democracy ” anywhere. It does not fall gloriously out of bombay doors, nor issue from the ends of gun barrels nor creep in on the little cat feet of infantry. It springs up out of the ground a people stand upon and if they are lucky or prudent or both, they will quickly chasten the motivating democratic urge for something more along the lines of a Republic.

The nation may not have “turned the other cheek” but it has presented its smiling cheeks at both ends for an auto-drubbing of epic proportions. Pacifism aint my bag and I’ve stilled any urges at self abuse I might have ever possessed. I don’t think you can call my plan to drop planeloads of neo-cons over the Hindu Kush “pacifist”.

As to Rousseau, “thoroughly disturbed romantic” works for me. The essential problem with notions of a collective egalitarian spirit is that it has never existed for anything but tight knit homogeneous groups and even there, order and duty becomes more important than egalitarianism, thus creating havoc when government attempts to make it so…..and egalitarianism vanishes in favor of despotism or the grinding machinery of entropic social engineering…a fountainhead of embedded resentment.

This, of course, does not make it counterproductive to philosophically explore….away from government…the idea of egalitarianism or community.

avatar John Willson October 14, 2009 at 11:33 am

“Thoroughly disturbed romantic” is fine, as is “neurotic”, as is “moral monster.” Rousseau was all of the above. Just think “General Will” or ponder on what he did to his own children. But that isn’t the issue here, and I don’t want to try to make it the issue. [By the way, I agree with every word and every meaning of D.W. Sabin's last post.] My unease with Russell Arben Fox’s (I use the whole name because he likes his name) case for Lasch is that one cannot take hold of slime without some of it sticking. Rousseau, Marx, Freud–we’re not talking here about nice guys down the block who happen to have a little different slant on reality. We’re talking about bad guys who want reality to be play-dough and to reshape Eden into their own images. Family, community–these are either in the nature of things or they are pure constructs, there is little middle ground. If they are in the nature of things then Rousseau, Marx, and Freud have nothing to teach about them. They give us only, and I’ll say it again, one kind of sappy socialism or another. If we would get really to the heart of the matter, in the era since those three wrote, let’s start instead with Rerum Novarum and move ahead to Caritas in Veritate.

avatar Bob Cheeks October 14, 2009 at 3:36 pm

Sabin, my interest here isn’t in repeating the redundancies of an interminable agreement. You, sir, are slipperier than a Beaver Creek mud-puppy in low water!
What I wanted to know, as a general curiosity, was if Bush was wrong re: his response to 911, what would you have done. And, let me expand that question to ask bloggers and commentors in general:
1. What was the proper response of the American gummint to the attack of 911?
Arben, do jump in here, and I apologize for sidetracking your delightful essay on the grotesqueries of certain intellectuals.

avatar Carl Scott October 14, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Haven’t read 100%, Mr. Fox, but fine stuff. You (and definitely Patrick D.) might enjoy this Galston-and-McWilliams-influenced yet pro-Whitman book I’m reading now and enjoying a great deal, Getting the Left Right, by Spraegens(I forget the first name).

P.S. Mr. Sabin, when you said “Neither is preferable over the other to any significant degree,” I really had to laugh. That right there is a bad FPR dogma, (I know, thankfully, not for all of y’all!)a dogma apparently as true today as it will be tomorrow. No significant degree! But what WILL you do if “any” of the relevant degrees ever becomes signficant? Could your insides live with having to side with a side? One that is not 98.5% morally pure? Even for one election? Or, (gasp) two? Or is it to be No Significant Degree for Thee, for perpetuity?

P.P.S. I must now (sniff!) go shed my daily teardrop for each day the Hussein dynasty is no longer in power.

avatar John Willson October 14, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Bob, OK, let’s leave off the real story here and go to your question, and I’m willing to answer it directly. Wars to drop democracies on people have never worked, never will. If we really understand that the folks responsible for 9/11 want to kill us, then of course, son-of-a-gun, it would be better to stop them from doing it, which might well mean killing them. Who were they? They were not from Iraq, not from Iran, not from Syria, not from (gasp!) Afghanistan, they were from SAUDI ARABIA. The same country that is bankrolling extremist schools all over our country, still, right now. The same country we call our “ally” in that part of the world. The same place we prop up and defend and even make our soldiers conform to their ridiculous customs while they protect them. We have neocon after neocon who have caused us to attack every place other than where the enemy lives. And have you noticed how many neocon soldiers there are? Mr. Scott, gosh, sniff sheds his teardrop for “each day the Hussein regime is no longer in power.” How many tears for the guys and girls, several of them from my family, who have had to bear the burden of such snotty language? Get it right, guys.

avatar Bob Cheeks October 14, 2009 at 5:03 pm

John, thank you very much!
I trust there are more of our regular (and new) interlocutors who might respond.

avatar Russell Arben Fox October 14, 2009 at 5:26 pm

John,

Family, community–these are either in the nature of things or they are pure constructs, there is little middle ground.

Well, we’ll just have to (hopefully respecfully) part company here then, as I believe there is actually a quite broad middle ground. I’m quite convinced, just by looking at the material history of the family unit in our own society, to say nothing of how families are conceived and maintained in numerous other cultures around the world (patriarchal, matriarchal, communal, monogamous, polygamous, traditional one-bread-winner, multiple-bread-winner, tribal, etc.), that “family” and “community,” opportunities for the realization of divine gifts they may be, are in part constructed through our own subjective participation with others. As things that are at partly constructed, they are therefore also things whose construction, I assume, can either further or retard the development of human virtues. Hence, examining their construction, as Rousseau and Marx and Freud all did, is a worthy endeavor. I’m not saying that to defend or agree with all which any of them said, but only to emphasize that I don’t believe it’s prima facie madness to assume, as Lasch did, that such “leftist” resources can’t aid in conserving the local.

Carl, you mean Thomas Spragens’s new book? Thanks for the reminder of it; I’ve seen it, but I haven’t picked up a copy yet, and I need to.

Bob, D.W., my apologies, but I’ll stay out of the 9/11 discussion for now. But do keep it up!

avatar John Willson October 14, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Russell Arben Fox (I like your name, too, and I’m glad you use it all. I am John Paul Willson, after whom two Popes are named–gag–and whose family called me “Johnny Paul” until I was at least thirty.),

Yes, we can part company respectfully on this subject. All those forms of “families” you name are either constructed by us or somewhat fewer of them are constructed by a created order. If Freud is right about the fact that we are not culpable for sin, if Darwin is right that there is only space, time, and chance, and if Marx is right, etc. then everything is open to question about family and community. Thorstein Veblen gives a wonderful explanation of the origin of families: hunter-warriors had to have prizes, so they took the women of their fallen competitors, and so private property and the household came to be. If this is in play, then Emile is, too. And I’m willing to talk with you with all good nature about it, but it makes Rousseau still a moral monster.

Best (and I mean it), John

avatar D.W. Sabin October 15, 2009 at 9:59 am

Mr. Scott,
Sarcasm, to be effective, requires a little more clarity than you afforded it. But then, fog always provides a good cover. The cheap shot about crying over the thugs of the Hussein Family is the only bit of clarity within your snappy remarks and it is redolent of the lock-brained partisan stupidity of the current era: One is either fer or agin. Go Patriots! Rah Rah.

If you can present a list of MATERIAL differences between the two parties TODAY and as they relate to the proper functioning of the American Republic, I’d love to entertain it. Personally, I will surely admit to embracing the role of a member of the permanent opposition but I would love to be able to embrace a principled political force that does not sail some reeking hulk of hypocrisy so gaily up the Potomac.

But, in general, thank God there is not consensus on this site, its one of the things that makes it distinctive. Frankly, more than a strong single party, I would like to see both parties strong and resolute and furthering the discursive form of government we once enjoyed. We are weak because both parties are weak. One weakened party, begets another.

Cheeks,
If there is anything slippery going on here it is the assertion that support of the Iraqi War…. an ill-considered war of choice and not defense….. is connected to either 9/11 itself or a prudent response to the events of that day. The previous administration started to respond prudently and clearly but then veered wildly off course into the neo-con inspired fantasy land. What I would have done is an essay in absurdity. As I mentioned, I suckered to Bush Administration blandishments and prevarication early on but I did not have access to their intelligence.

The root causes of 9/11 remain:
1. Realpolitik with the Oil Sheiks intermarried with the assorted grab bag of Perversions attending our relationship with Israel. Pakistan and India can be added into this volatile mixture as well
2. A lack of follow through and concerted action in Afghanistan after the Russians pulled out. In effect, we handed the situation to the Mujahideen and Osama who used the benefit of our training, arms and money within a devastated landscape to consolidate their growing movement known as the Base. Need I remind you that the Texans feted the Taliban during the run-up to the Bush II election?
3. American Empire, the zombie remaining from the Cold War.

Responding to the attack of 9/11 should have combined international diplomacy and law enforcement as well as the U.S. Military in a manner which kept the above 3 items clearly in mind. The most punishing impact from the actions of this government is that the threat of U.S. Military Force was greater before than after these wars. Not only have we bled the military of hardware and men, we have compromised its reputation as a result of diplomatic dithering, ham-handed strategic follow through and a lack of focus…chiefly expressed in abandoning the Afghan theatre for the farrago of Iraq….the “fight over there so they will not come here” ploy. In essence, we have laid the foundations for a permanent state of war.

There is, in the end, a clear tendency of the United States to be satisfied with chaos, destruction and death abroad and this, above all else, when combined with the corruptions and perversions of the rule of law here at home should sit everyone upright in their seats and then cause them to flee the craven partisan group-grope that is corrupting the remaining threads of the Republic in an effort to put what has been broken back together. Pull on that thread skippy.

Bob, 9/11 was a vicious attack upon innocent people but it was also a classic Cassius Clay Rope-A-Dope and we have obliged beyond their wildest dreams, even raising the bet with financial tomfoolery.

avatar Carl Scott October 15, 2009 at 11:08 am

Yes Russell, that’s the one. It’s really quite good so far…has me at least rethinking my dislike of Walt Whitman as a democratic thinker, a dislike derived heavily from my social conservatism and my readings in Plato/Tocqueville/McWilliams.

Mr. Sabin, you’re sure schoolin’ me in the lost art of earthy-yet-bloggy satire and sarcasm. I mean, if only I could write something as hilarious as your lil’ revenge-fantasy above about imprisoning the neo-conservatives who “fooled” you and sending them to the terrorists in exchange for intelligence!

For the sake of the clarity you ask for, I hold that George W. Bush got, despite all else that he got wrong, the two key decisions he had to make right. Those were: 1) Whether to invade Iraq. 2) Whether to cut-and-run in 2006, or to surge. I’d guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40% of Americans hold this basic neo-con-esque view that remains so obviously idiotic and hateful to you.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 16, 2009 at 10:38 am

Mr. Scott,
Thats the spirit…..thank you. Its nice to engage with someone who grinds an axe as loudly as I do and I’m happy to join Walt in your dislike category. Still though, I wonder at your use of quotation marks around the word “fooled” . Is this irony or is it because you still actually believe the “weapons of mass destruction” fairy tale or the 9/11-Iraq connection? However, a minor correction, I don’t believe I used the descriptive term “hateful” in describing the various machinations of the neo-con. In fact, I don’t really believe hate has much to do with their mercenary and opportunistic machinations. “Idiotic” suffices. After all, “Hate” would distract them from the paycheck, the ultimate goal of the paid brigades of high holy bi-partisan neo-con….as opposed to the millions bamboozled by them.

Yes Mr. Scott, the world is a dangerous place, some people within the Beltway embrace the idea and make a living off of it. Fear is such a rich vein to mine.

I await your concise summary of the material differences between todays political parties. By the way, as another minor qualification , I don’t need a 98.5 % “purity” level, unlike the neo-con, utopia holds no allure. I’d be content with a simple 50% rate or even just the batting average of a middling hitter.

avatar David B. Hickey October 17, 2009 at 8:36 pm

First off: this is heartening. So glad to see THE essential debate going on in such a refined way. Secondly, if it is correct to conclude from your analysis, Russell, that Lasch’s program is helpful only under an umbrella of ‘belief’, why is there not more discussion of that matter? Here’s a suggestion: belief is unbelievable at this point in time because all the current belief systems are either grounded in resentments and subsequent fantasies and/or imposed, topdown. Hegel, on the other hand, deduced an organic pantheism from human existence. And, since this entire debate has already occurred in the mind of Hegel, I further and respectfully suggest a rereading of old GWF. Just one jewel, among many: Hegel argues that communitarianism, while conservative in the good sense of providing a secure launching pad for the young, is nothing if not forward looking and ‘doomed’ to reinvent its institutions over time. It is the debate itself that we are meant to live for, not its cessation in a false Beulah.

avatar Ted Schrey Montreal October 18, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Anyway, one does get sidetracked on tribal intellectual skirmishes rather easily.
I am just trying to understand the article Defending Lasch, etc… and wonder out loud what the status of Lasch’s “fierce commitment to economic and civic equality” will amount to, set against a background of loss of productive work in the ‘developed world’ and its emergence in Asia.
Will it be greater equality in poverty? And if so, a democratic vision of whatever kind might not be seen as a fair deal by us, the spoiled industrialized minority.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: