U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Maybe This Is the Other Place

I’ve been reading Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven (1991), which I find fascinating, insightful, and infuriating, as I tend to find Lasch’s work.  The book is an account and criticism of the idea of progress, which Lasch argued lay at the root of the crisis that he believed confronted America in the early 1990s (and that went back at least to the 1970s).  The Preface and Introduction to the book briefly sketch this crisis, Lasch’s own political journey, and the origins of the book.
Reading the beginning of The True and Only Heaven in 2017, I was struck by how much it resembles a lot of things people write today.  The political left and right as we know them, Lasch argued over a quarter century ago, are collapsing due to their inability to respond to the felt needs of ordinary, everyday people.  Liberals’ “well-meaning efforts to help black people, women, gays, and other victims of legal discrimination smacked of paternalism” and triggered a predictable conservative backlash (p. 38).  But while Reagan, the embodiment of that conservative backlash, “played on the desire for order, continuity, responsibility, and discipline,…his program contained nothing that would satisfy that desire.”  In Lasch’s view, the left and right of American politics in the early 1990s were doomed to failure. Neither satisfied the human needs of Americans.

“[B]oth the right and left,” he wrote,

therefore prefer to talk about something else—for example, to exchange accusations of fascism and socialism. But the ritual deployment and rhetorical inflation of these familiar slogans provide further evidence of the emptiness of recent political debate. For the left, fascism now embraces everything to the right of liberalism and social democracy, including such disparate configurations as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, the opposition to the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, and Reaganism itself. For the right communism (or ‘creeping socialism,’ as it used to be called) embraces everything to the left of, and including, the New Deal. Not only have these terms lost their meaning through wreckless expansion, but they no longer describe historical alternatives at the end of the twentieth century. (p. 24)

Not everything in The True and Only Heaven sounds like today’s political analysis. Lasch’s focus on limits, which he calls “the forbidden topic,” is, somewhat ironically, a much less common trope in U.S. political talk today than it was from the 1970s to the 1990s.  If we compare the twenty years before Lasch wrote to the twenty-five years since, the discourse of limits was a much more important part of our civic dialogue in the earlier period than the more recent one.  Especially in the 1970s, but continuing into the 1980s, important public intellectuals like Robert Heilbroner and politicians like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, and even Bill Clinton suggested that there were limits to economic growth or to the things that government might accomplish. Today, even mainstream responses to global climate change (surely the most daunting limit we seem to face) often emphasize the economic opportunities it creates.

But Lasch’s sense that left and right are failing to meet the needs of normal Americans and are thus falling apart is very familiar. Encountering that thought now in a book published twenty-five years ago (when it was, it should be said, already a fairly old thought in American political analysis) leads me to wonder whether this state is a lot more stable, in its own odd way, than critics like Lasch imagined it being.

Lasch ends his introduction hinting that the crisis in American political life foretells something better to come, that by acknowledging the failure of progress – in both its left-wing and right-wing varieties – and listening to the “darker voices…that speak to us now,” we might “confront the mounting difficulties that threaten to overwhelm us,” and eventually, presumably, embrace something like Lasch’s own culturally conservative Marxian politics (p. 39).

The hope (mixed with fear) that our political system is on the brink of collapse, that contemporary liberalism and contemporary conservatism are in an existential crisis, but that out of that crisis a world of new political possibilities will grow, is very much with us again today.

But what if we’re stuck with this world for a while? What if the apparent crises of left and right are a more stable state than we’d like them to be?

That’s certainly not what our current moment feels like to me. The political world of 2017 does feel like a world in transition. Old political parties and ideologies are failing and a different future – perhaps horrific, perhaps hopeful – seems waiting to be born.

But 1991 felt that way to Christopher Lasch. Reagan’s election in 1980 felt that way to many of us.  The crises of the 1970s felt that way to many American observers, left and right. And confronting those similarities makes me wonder:  perhaps our immediate future is just a prolonged Age of Fracture. Maybe we’re not going anywhere politically. Perhaps we’re already there.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Fantastic post, Ben! Tomorrow I will be taking up this theme of people who look forward to some sort of apocalypse as a necessary stage in achieving a just society.

  2. Lasch’s continued discussion of limits ties him to Catholic subsidiarity advocates. By focusing on limits, we revert to looking for local answers—defaulting to idealization of the parochial.

    I recently read Revolt of the Elites, and we struck by Lasch’s anti-internationalism and continued critique of cosmopolitan ideals. Did that come up in The True and Only Heaven?

    Otherwise, I’m struck by a similarity in your conclusion here and a comment I made on a recent Corey Robin Facebook post about legitimation crises. I feel our current sense of a legitimation crisis is just a continued sense that has arisen since the 1960s, particularly 1968. And I commented that this nation has survived worse crises. Perhaps living in a democracy, per Kloppenberg’s book, involves cycles of crises (in the eye of the beholder), and that for some we’re *always* living in a sense of that kind of crisis? – TL

    • Hi Tim: Two quick comments. First, isn’t “subsidiarity” a part of Catholic social teaching? When one “advocates” for subsidiarity aren’t they advocating for a Catholic view of the world? I realize that some Catholics place more emphasis on subsidiarity than others, but it would seem that Catholic social teaching on this issue (in terms of the recognition of “limits”) reflects a Christian view of the fallen state of all human beings. I would probably not frame Lasch’s ideas in True and Only Heaven in the same progressive way that you do when you note that Lasch’s focus on limits REVERTS us to looking for local answers and DEFAULTS to the IDEALIZATION OF THE PAROCHIAL. –John P.S. Thanks for the post Ben.

  3. Ben,
    An excellent mini-analysis! I experience similar reactions whenever I revisit Lasch’s writings in recent years. My suggestion for further thought is this:
    It’s possible that the apparent stability of our ideological gridlock might be blinding us to the longer-term reality that the current Age of Fracture is itself a lengthy period of transition (hence the seeming failure of the ‘70s, ‘90s, or 2016-17 as clear-cut pivotal eras are because they are phases within a multi-generational shift). Perhaps the traumatic stage we are experiencing represents a bridge between the paradigmatic cohesion of the era that began in the late-19th century and ended in the 1970s and a future analogous era that will span a good part of the 21st century (or longer). This is why I’m always telling folks that, in a certain fundamental sense, the 1970s “ended but never finished.”

  4. I also really enjoyed this, Ben! I wonder if another side of this is that we keep being told that some kind of “game-changer”–whether electoral, demographic, technological, epidemiological, etc.–is imminent, but the subjects of these predictions end up either having significant but short-lived effects or being totally negligible.

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