The street heats the urgency of now
As you see there’s no one around
—1979, The Smashing Pumpkins
Christopher Lasch published his best-selling book The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, at the close of a tumultuous, confusing decade in America. Modern American liberalism, having entered the decade replete with boundless confidence of its ability to transform society, had fallen into a dazed retreat. Neoclassical economics could not explain the coexistence of unemployment and inflation, the Sexual Revolution had stripped sexuality of its puritanical elements but brought Americans no peace and the cock-sure radicals of the ’60’s had abandoned their political pulpits and turned to New Age therapies to quell the inner emptiness that pervaded the ’70’s. America teetered on the brink of the ’80’s, unsure of the future of the state of America, but vaguely sure that the ’80’s would result in the rebirth of altruism and selflessness. Christopher Lasch argued otherwise.
Lasch, before the publishing of The Culture Of Narcissism, was a little-known professor of history at the University of Rochester. He was at first a neo-Marxist, but his views evolved dramatically over the course of his life. He was always an impassioned critic of liberalism, critiquing the superficiality that underpinned so much of radical work in his time. By the time he published The Culture of Narcissism, he had fused conservative critiques of culture with Marxist economic criticism of capitalism and Freudian psychoanalysis.
The book is a brilliant jeremiad that seamlessly fuses American history, sociological and psychological analysis with a strident critique of modern capitalism. He argues that individual cultures work out distinctive approaches to raising children and, as such, produces adults with personalities tailored towards to adapting to the prevailing cultural climate. The social invasion of the self by American society, he argues, has resulted in American personalities that mirror clinical narcissism. He observes that anxiety, a lack of self-identity, an obsession with personal autonomy and a fear of sexual intimacy are endemic to the collective American psyche and are symptoms of narcissism.
He identifies the collapse of the American family as the primary vehicle for this social depression. Liberal reformers, starting in the Gilded Age, saw the state as a tool to produce better, more productive citizens. They created courts of juvenile justice and created the social work profession, operating under the assumptions that not only was the state more capable of raising children into productive, healthy adults but also that children were “an asset of the state, not property of the parents.” This mindset quickly backfired even before flappers started bearing their ankles at speakeasies and reformers began to retreat partially and modify their ideas, but did nothing to truly stem the crushing power of state bureaucracy that gained more steam every decade in America.
This was coupled with the expansion of corporate influence on society. Advertising and marketing quickly became indistinguishable from propaganda by World War II. Seizing on the anxiety created in parents by liberal reformers, self-styled experts—like Dr. Spock in the ’40’s—profited from book sales, advertising aimed at convincing parents they would be better parents by purchasing their products and supporting bureaucratic entities that depended on private production of goods. Corporations moved from endeavoring to inculcate a Protestant work ethic in workers to striving to make workers better consumers, who would pursue wealth not for any sort of moral reason, but simply to consume for consumption’s sake.
Further, the collapse of religion, art and sex as a reprieve from the reality of life signified a society devolving into self-absorption. The ruthless devaluation of the past was coupled with an overriding preoccupation with the present that represented a society that was only interested in what can be gained today, not what should be saved for tomorrow. What formerly represented peaceful, enjoyable departures from the monotony of life became therapeutic necessities to just exist in society. Society, simply, became a day-to-day grind just to exist in a future-less society.
For his part, Lasch’s masterful command of American history and social perception make the book a simultaneously difficult but enjoyable read. His Marxist critiques of economics comes across as juvenile and uninformed at times, but his critique of consumer culture is incredibly compelling.
Further, his critiques of feminism and heterosexual relations are more than a bit naive about the reality of sexuality and he certainly gives feminists more latitude in their claims than he should, but he identifies the problems that necessarily inhere in a sexual revolution. He correctly identifies that the Sexual Revolution wasn’t a proactive movement, but a reaction to a society that doesn’t value commitment or family life.
Unfortunately, as with any man with a vision that probes into the deepest recesses of the human condition, he caused much consternation to those who needed to hear his message most. Conservatives lauded his book, but failed to appreciate the nuances of his critiques about the collapse of the family. Most of those conservatives were fervent supporters of Reagan, a President who did nothing to stem the invasion of the family by bureaucrats. Liberals were more mixed in their views; feminists hated the book with a fiendish rage, while other outlets were more sympathetic to his message about the importance of the family and traditions related to religion and culture.
After the publication of his book, he was unwavering in his critique of liberalism and liberalism’s concomitant devaluation of the family and religion. He would go on to pen an afterword in 1990—just years before his death—observing that the Yuppies of the ’80’s did nothing to stop the rank self-absorption of America, as many in the ’70’s had predicted they would. In it, he sagely observed:
The best hope of emotional maturity, then, appears to lie in a recognition of our need for and dependence on people who nevertheless remain separate from ourselves and refuse to submit to our whims. It lies in a recognition of others not as projections of our own desires but as independent beings with desires of their own.
More broadly, it lies in acceptance of our limits. The world does not not exist merely to satisfy our own desires; it is a world in which we can find pleasure and meaning, once we understand that others too have a right to those goods. Psychoanalysis confirms the ancient religious insight that the only way to achieve happiness is to accept limitations in a spirit of gratitude and contrition instead of attempting to annul those limitations or bitterly resenting them.
Lasch would go on to pass away a few years later, a victim of a metastasized cancer, for which he refused chemotherapy. He noted to one of his doctors that living for the sake of being alive is a uniquely American mindset and not who he was. He was 61.
His dogged, relentless criticism of the closing of the American psyche was misunderstand by most. Conservatives embraced his exhortations about the importance of the family while doing nothing to stem the invasion of family life. Liberals either refused to admit the error of their ways or gave weak support to his assertions, while doing nothing to ameliorate the social devastation of America.
Men get lost sometimes as the years unfurl and the effect of their decisions in life become difficult to contextualize. Lasch compiled a record of liberalism that showed how profoundly cruel it was on the family, which he referred to as the “haven in a heartless world.” The so-called altruism that underlain the impulses of liberalism had not lead to a better society, only a more self-absorbed and desperate one. Conservatives refused to take seriously that which Lasch laid bare, only using his book to clobber liberals over the head for political gain.
Yet, that is the fate of those with sight beyond sight: rarely—if ever—are they truly appreciated in their lifetime. Only with hindsight can the truly brilliant be fully understood.
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