Defending Lasch, Left and/or Right

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


[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.

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