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Contrarian’s Wisdom

An anguished journey to understanding America.

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By JAMES SEATON
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American social democrats and the European social democratic parties failed to offer a truly radical alternative. The only real hope lay with the New Left’s reinvigoration of “an indigenous tradition of radical populism” that pointed toward a socialism whose central values would be “decentralization, local control, and a generally antibureaucratic outlook.” That hope, however, was short-lived, as the New Left degenerated into “dogmatism, an obsession with factional purity, vilification of opponents, hysterical gestures of alienation, the cult of violence.”

The experience of the 1960s left Lasch more convinced than ever that American culture and society urgently needed a radical transformation from capitalism to socialism. Political and cultural revolution was morally necessary but practically impossible. The masters of the Frankfurt School—
Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer—had come to the same conclusions when confronted with the rise of fascism and Nazism in the thirties. Marxism remained true, but the failure of the workers to rise up in revolution could not be explained unless Marx were supplemented by Freud.

Eric Miller suggests that the example of Adorno, in particular, inspired Lasch’s best-known book, The Culture of Narcissism. The book was written, claims Miller, “with a critical passion and literary verve similar to Adorno’s.” If Adorno “reacted to the culture of industrial capitalism with bitter repugnance, deeming it, in the most bitter of tones, a vast moral failure,” Lasch’s “sophisticated jeremiad” rendered much the same verdict on his own society. For Miller the comparison is all to Lasch’s credit—“Adorno’s honesty, acuity, and pessimism bore striking resemblances to Lasch.” 

It is possible, however, to draw different conclusions from the comparison. Adorno was so sure of his own moral and intellectual “acuity” that he rarely saw any need to find evidence, or even offer an explanation, for his condemnation of capitalism and all popular culture, including, notoriously and specifically, American jazz. If the great majority of the population took no interest in revolution, that was because they were victims of “false consciousness.” For a thinker who had placed his political hopes almost entirely in “an indigenous tradition of radical populism,” Adorno was strange company.

In Haven in a Heartless World (1977), however, Lasch had already sketched out the intellectual basis of his own “radical populism” in a scathing critique of the ways in which the “helping professions,” supported by academic social science and progressive opinion, had come to exercise ever greater control over ordinary citizens, always for benign reasons but with results that (as Lasch put it) “benefited the ‘helping professions’ far more than they helped the family.” 

If Lasch took on the liberal academic orthodoxy, he also criticized “the so-called counterculture” whose “ideas of sexual liberation—the celebration of oral sex, masturbation, and homosexuality”—seemed to Lasch to derive not from the overcoming of old prejudices but from a much less admirable source: “the prevailing fear of heterosexual passion, even of sexual intercourse itself.” Small wonder that the book was condemned in the Harvard Educational Review and praised by National Review. As Eric Miller perceptively points out, however, Lasch’s populism was flawed not by his powerful analysis of progressive elitism but, rather, by his “own fundamentally sentimental stance toward ‘the people,’ ” who appear in the narrative only as “victimized masses.” Miller fails to observe that in regarding “the masses” as innocent but deluded victims of the capitalist juggernaut Lasch was, despite his avowed populism, still following the Frankfurt School.

In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991), his longest and most ambitious book, Lasch left behind not only the Frankfurt School but Marx and Freud as well. American history now became, as Miller puts it, “a strange and gripping struggle” between “those of progressive orientation and those of populist inclination.” Progressivism Lasch rejected entirely, especially “the basic premise of progressive thought—the assumption that economic abundance comes before everything else, which leads unavoidably to an acceptance of centralized production and administration as the only way to achieve it.” Progressivism was the creed of the educated classes, while populism was the political expression of “the petty-bourgeois or working class ethic of limits.”

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