U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Stuck in the Middle with Lasch

Christopher_Lasch_hpThe following post is from Christopher Shannon and is a response to Michael Kramer’s essay on Christopher Lasch that appeared a week ago.  This exchange should continue next week with another post from Michael.

Christopher Shannon is an associate professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia.  He is the author of two books on the history of American social science, Conspicuous Criticism (1996) and A World Made Safe for Differences (2001).  His most recent book is Bowery to Broadway:  The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (2010).

Christopher Lasch was arguably the most important U.S. intellectual historian of the last third of the twentieth century.  Michael Kramer acknowledges that most of Lasch’s enduring reputation rests on his early work The New Radicalism in America (1965), which examined the intellectual as a social type, and his later works such as The Culture of Narcissism (1979), which offered a jeremiad against the moral decline of American culture.  Kramer’s appreciative and illuminating article argues for the need to reconsider a forgotten middle period, covering the late 1960s and early 1970s and captured in Lasch’s two essay collections, The Agony of the American Left (1969) and The World of Nations (1973). These books reflect a time when Lasch was, in Kramer’s words, “one and the same time a penetrating analyst of the liberal establishment, a firm opponent to the startling rise of reactionary right-wing politics, and an independent ally of the younger New Left.”  Kramer contrasts this period favorably with Lasch’s later period, marked by a full-scale rejection of liberalism as well as the liberationist movements that emerged from the left-wing revolt against liberalism in the 1960s.  I fully share Kramer’s appreciation for this period in Lasch’s career, but wish to explore the implications of privileging this period both in terms of our understanding of the intellectual as social type and the substance of Lasch’s thought.

First, the intellectual as social type.  There are of course many types of intellectuals. Lasch’s New Radicalism skewered one type that he found dominant in early twentieth-century American life:  the alienated middle-class intellectual, searching for authentic, vital experience and willing to abandon the life of the mind in order to achieve fulfillment through participation in a mass political movement.  Lasch saw many of these tendencies reproducing themselves in the late 1960s, and his essays were merciless in exposing the self-destructive irrationalism of the time. Lasch avoided these errors by seeming to be everywhere and nowhere politically.  This lack of a fixed position—one might well call it intellectual liminality—is precisely what attracts Kramer to this period:

“Its searching quality, its empathetic but fierce scrutiny of ideas relevant to pressing matters of the day, its lack of polemics or set judgments, its reflexivity instead of simple reflex responses—in sum, its evidence of thought in motion, forceful but open to subtle shifts and cross-cut lines of possibility in the thinking of others, makes it more significant, in its odd way, than Lasch’s more realized arguments and positions earlier and later in his life.”

This is a fairly accurate description of Lasch’s work during this middle period, and its appeal is understandable.  To be an intellectual is in many ways first to be a critic. At this time, Lasch seemed to have a critique of everything, while being notoriously hard to pin down.  He was indeed the embodiment of thought in motion, yet it was a motion that seemed to lack any clear sense of direction.  This positionless position is in effect another social type of the intellectual, one that I have examined in my Conspicuous Criticism and A World Made Safe for Differences. That Lasch grew dissatisfied with this constant intellectual wandering and finally took his stand with a set of values he called “populism” is, for Kramer, a retreat into the very romanticization of the common man that Lasch had so thoroughly critiqued in The New Radicalism.

Well, if Lasch be a sentimental romantic, he is not the only one in Kramer’s article.  The ideal of the free-floating intellectual who stands as an independent judge of society is surely a close second to the intellectual as a man of the people.  It is an ideal, moreover, generally blind to the power relations of its very specific class setting—that of the professional managerial class Lasch attacked in The Revolt of the Elites. No wonder Kramer sees this later work as shrill, cranky, polemical, etc. (I am objectively a member of this class as well, so my criticism here is not from any position of class purity). Where most intellectuals are content to critique someone else’s class (the dirty capitalists!), Lasch saw the complicity of his own class in some of the worst developments of late twentieth century America, most especially the decline of what he called “the common life.”   For this, Kramer accuses Lasch of lapsing into nostalgia; curiously, he also criticizes Lasch for failing to address “the outrageous attacks from the right on the any sense of the common good whatsoever.”  Well, who is nostalgic and who is critical depends on how one defines terms such as the common life and the common good.

Nowhere have such definitions been more contentious than in the area of family life and gender relations.  For Kramer, “Lasch’s rather tin ear for the range of positions articulated within second wave feminism . . . undercut what made his work so powerful.”   Lasch argued that so much of post-1960s feminism simply demanded for women the same access to middle-class professionalism enjoyed by men.  Conceding this critique, Kramer follows Ellen Willis in accusing Lasch of failing to see how feminists had acknowledged and corrected this limitation and developed socialist alternatives to mere liberal feminism.  In looking at Willis’s review of Lasch’s Women and the Common Life, I fail to see what Kramer calls an “amazing takedown” of Lasch’s position. Willis concludes her “critique” of Lasch with an unapologetic affirmation of the very state and market individualism that Lasch rejected as undermining the common life:

. . . few would disagree that the advent of the liberal state represented real progress for women. The capitalist marketplace opened up the possibility of a livelihood independent of fathers and husbands. Enlightenment notions of individual freedom and inalienable rights enabled women to fight for basic perquisites of citizenship and ultimately to make the far more radical demand for control over their sexual and reproductive lives.

Well, Lasch was one of the few who did disagree, largely because he realized that a world in which women are independent of men is one in which men are independent of women, and if everyone is independent of everyone else, then we do not really have a properly “common” life.  For Lasch, the common life is rooted in a mutual dependence best captured by the traditional home economy.  Whatever men’s social power relative to women in pre-industrial times, the male farmer who owned land could not survive without the productive labor of women. One might argue that the dual-income marriage is a rough modern equivalent of this pre-modern dependence, except that independent incomes have helped to facilitate divorce, itself lauded as yet another achievement of second wave feminism.  How can one argue for broader social commitments to public life when one is under no moral or legal obligation to honor the most intimate and personal commitment of one’s private life?  This is a question Lasch raises in his work, and it is not one that Ellen Willis or Michael Kramer has answered.

By all means, let us revisit Lasch’s middle period.  But let us not fall into the trap of reading his intellectual career through yet another declension narrative.  To dismiss Lasch’s later work is to reinforce the “clunky left or right, liberal or reactionary, categories” that Kramer seeks to avoid by turning to his middle period.   One may not agree with Lasch’s anti-capitalist cultural conservatism, but it is the most intellectually compelling alternative to the liberalism that has dominated mainstream intellectual life—and intellectual history—for the past quarter century.  If intellectual history is to be a dialogue rather than a monologue, we need more, not less, of the voice of the later Lasch.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. If the increasing economic independence of women has made divorce easier and more prevalent, then perhaps it was not a sense of moral obligation or personal commitment that kept marriages together in the first place. Maybe women were just trapped in a system that legally, economically, and socially compelled them to continue to render their productive and reproductive labor to a man in exchange for food, shelter and clothing.

    Talk about being stuck in the middle. “Darling, after all these years, I’m still here because I really don’t have a choice,” “I’ll never leave you, dear, because I can’t afford to,” “If I could do it all over again, I would never have locked myself into this contractual obligation, but now I’m trapped for life” — those would make great anniversary cards. Call me, Hallmark.

    • Hi Christopher —

      Thanks for this response. First let me say that _Conspicuous Criticism_ was a key book for me in graduate school. Ultimately, I did not—and still do not—agree with much of your interpretation of these intellectuals, but the book remains to me an important intervention in the field. A really important one. As a side note, the radical-liberal Margaret Fuller-loving Charlie Capper had us read it in his US Intellectual History grad seminar so, contrary to an earlier post you made, your work *does* have a place at the manipulated-symbolic class bleeding-heart liberal table of US intellectual history! I have more to write in response to your comments on Lasch–working on those in the coming days–and I welcome the opportunity to continue this conversation about the significance of his work. More in a bit.


      • Michael,

        Thanks for chiming in. I will await your full reply next week, but it is nice to start getting acquainted. Its also nice to hear that CC snuck into your seminar room, and glad to know that you got something out of it. In terms of getting a hearing, my concern about the fate of Lasch’s later period comes what I know of Eric Miller’s struggle to get his book published. Let’s just say it was not an easy road, and several presses questioned why any one would want to read a book about someone like Lasch. And this, scarcely ten years after his death. But again, I will wait for your full response before I say anything more.

    • LD —

      I believe “patriarchy” is the word, yes?

      It’s the one Willis used but Lasch avoided (I have to look again to see if he actually explicitly used the word…stay tuned).

      There are some key insights into feminism in relation to modernity, consumerism, liberation that Lasch has to offer, I think, but I diverge from Christopher on the particulars.

      More soon,

    • Hey L.D.,

      Well, I never said tradition was pretty!

      Seriously, your criticism makes perfect sense given modern understandings and expectations of marriage, but those are exactly what Lasch’s later work was calling into question. I agree that the traditional home economy doesn’t give women much choice or freedom, but I think Lasch’s later work responded to this criticism by emphasizing that it didn’t give men much choice or freedom either. Men didn’t marry out of love any more than women did; whatever love may have developed in such a marriage grew out of a common life rooted in necessity and dependence.

      I think it is fair to say that this life holds little more appeal for men than for women. Even conservatives who idealize the 1950s would never consider returning to life as limited as that of the traditional family farm. Conservatives, after all, are all about freedom. I think of First Things’ response to Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Award lecture, in which he lambasted agribusiness. Berry is the great poet of the home economy, and seems to attract a pretty diverse audience, bringing together people you would never expect to see together in the same auditorium (hippies, yuppies, traditionalist Catholics).

  2. The problem with your critique of feminism is that you do not have – or have yet to express to me – any reason why gender normativity or traditional relationships between men and women are necessary for the creation of the public good/mutual obligations we all crave. You have asserted this, but hardly shown why, without this concept, we are doomed to all the failures of market liberalism.

    And there is good reason why you do not go into this – because your justification for this belief or system is, ultimately, a theological one. And you know you can even barely enter, let alone win, the debate for a Christian worldview on the rational, evidence based grounds required in the realm of academic discussion (unless you are an acolyte of William Lane Craig, which I doubt). You could try to go without it and still make a case, but then you would end up in the same pickle all these conservatives found themselves in: http://coreyrobin.com/2011/09/13/the-mile-high-club-what-the-right-really-thinks-about-sex/

    So you content yourself with exposing the shortcomings of market liberalism, which is quite legitimate and needed and I thank you for it. But it all falls kind of flat when the agenda behind the criticism is not fully acknowledged and the consequences of returning to such a fantasy are not acknowledged – which is simply the misery L.D. Burnett was pointing to (don’t worry ladies!, your husband is going to abuse you only as much as God abuses him!) or the misery of those not born with the blessing of being straight, or the misery of women forced to have children or forced to marry, and that does not even exhaust the list of awful that these hierarchical relationships you deem necessary for the good life perpetuate. So again, if you are willing to crush a few souls to get to where you want us to be, by all means be honest about it; but acknowledge the drawbacks, at the least.

    In the meantime, the left is trying to come up with ways to call people to an obligation toward the larger good which do not ultimately rely on inequality, submission, and (therefore inevitably) oppression. You might not find any of the proposals personally compelling, but it is inaccurate to imply that the only option on hand is some version of soft, nice patriarchy that somehow (because we would all be good Christians?) would be free of all the ugliness of the patriarchy of the past.

    • Robin Maire,

      Welcome back to the conversation. Yes, I am returning to some of the criticisms I raised in our earlier exchange regarding Self’s book on the family.

      I am not expecting to convert anyone to my views on tradition and the family. I am hoping to achieve some clarity concerning the use of terms like “common good” and “common life.” I think that the term “common” is intended to invoke all the warm fuzzy feelings that we associate with organic, non-contractual relations, even as the actual substance of these relations is dismissed as patriarchal tyranny. It is the same dynamic that I analyzed in the rise of the culture concept: the invocation of organic unity ends up promoting radical individualism. Liberalism fails the test of a truly common life because it assumes prior individuation and//or aspires to higher individuation. Don’t take my word for it–take John Rawls’s.
      Words can have many different meanings, and meanings change over time. Liberalism once meant support for free markets, now it means support for market regulation. Still, there is clarity about this change in meaning. There is less clarity about the use of the term “common good,” and my sense is that liberals who use the term want all of the benefits without any of the costs (that is, beyond a willingness to endure higher taxes) of a common life. I would be content if those who affirm the primacy of individual liberation would use terms like the “collective good” or the “collective life”, which better reflect the notion of an aggregate of individuals agreeing to band together to advance everybody’s freedom.

      • Chris: Your distinction between the collective and the common good is appreciated. As is your underscoring of liberalism’s implied contractual (versus mere organic, voluntary) underpinings in relation to that common good.

        So what other contracts do you feel are needed, beyond the marriage contract? What other relationships or endeavors must be contractually sealed that are, right now, unmoored and ironically illiberal? What have we left to voluntarism that ought to be sealed with a contract? Mental health care? Health care? Education? Or is this about smaller group endeavors? What scale must your call for contract envelope? – TL

  3. Tim,

    Thanks for you questions. I guess I should further clarify my clarifications. The distinctions I am invoking are fairly conventional, drawn from the sociological tradition. You group organic and voluntary against the contractual, whereas I would group the voluntary and contractual against the organic. Ever since De Tocqueville, thinkers reflecting on American life have conflated community and the voluntary association. Community, as I am using it (again, following sociological convention), is not voluntary. For modern liberalism, anything that is not voluntary is coercive. That is why the family is such a problem for liberal thought (and this problem goes back to Locke)–we all know you can’t choose your relatives. Yet in an earlier time, with a very different socio-economic set up (the home economy), you also couldn’t abandon your relatives because in most cases you depended upon them for your survival. The market “liberated” people from such dependence, and I don’t think I need to lecture anyone reading this website on the dark side of market liberation. In the U.S. following a decade long Depression and catastrophic world war, the state seemed to be able to tame the dark side of market liberation, at least for a generation. That moment was quite brief and it is definitely gone.

    Lasch’s turn to the family was part of a search for a more enduring basis for stability and unity than the liberal welfare state seemed capable of providing. I read him as affirming the key virtue of mid-century liberalism–that health, education and welfare were common goods not left to individual choice. He came to look to family and local community–as social and economic entities, not mere sentimental attachments–as an alternative to the bureaucratic structures of the modern state and market. I suppose that’s where I stand, fully aware of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieving such community life.

  4. Awoke this morning with a little revelation about how to do a Google Advanced Search for something on Lasch that’s actually recent, and am glad to have found it here…landed at the Reflections on CL’s Reflections piece of 11/7. Really appreciated Jeff Ludwig’s response to same…recent reflections on Ellul too!

    Ray, Michael, and/or Christopher [whew!]…when I’m at the S-USIH facebook page, on my screen there are no “like” icons and no comment boxes under the shares of the original article and this response. Have read the original and not this response yet, but am putting this question here anyway cause I’m running out of time and am curious.

    Speaking of time, I’ve spent a fair amount trying to do such searches in ways that yielded nothing. Wondering if there are more like me similarly acquainted with failure in this regard…with respect to Lasch. Anyway, don’t know how much of the same set of progressive shares that come my way are noticed by readers here, but I’m remembering a relatively recent share re personality disorders at the CEO level, which, eg, must be some evidence that MANY minds could still be open to what Lasch had to say.

    In general, I’m wondering if anyone’s writing about where, say, addiction and/or Rene Girard’s ideas might fit into all this…at least with respect to Lasch’s ideas on superego. Have looked over the Critical Psychoanalysis site, but it seems it also could use a comment section.

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