A Narcissism of Small Differences

Why is everyone still talking about Christopher Lasch? An intellectual of the generation that came of age in the Fifties, he began his career something of a Marxist but, by the time of his death in 1994, had settled on a politics that combined an intransigent anti-capitalism with traditional stances on cultural matters. He had abandoned the Left, without quite having embraced the Right.

Since 2016 he has enjoyed a following on the millennial center-right and is now read increasingly in certain quadrants of the Left, not without some controversy. Lasch is today the universal lamplight of the advocates of a culturally Right but economically Left politics, the potential of which—at least, as its advocates tell us—is very great, but ill served by the current arrangement of the two US parties.

The title of Lasch’s last book, Revolt of the Elites (1996), also the one most central to his current revival, is based on Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses (1930). While Ortega had complained that the middle class—“mass man,” as he puts it—was ruining culture, Lasch argued it was the elites, the “top 20 percent,” who were ruining American society. Noblesse oblige, in its literal sense,is the gist of the book. Lasch followed Carlyle in arguing that unfettered capitalism had dislocated individuals in the top stratum of society from their natural role as moral figures within local communities. American elites now thought and acted only for themselves, preserving their old social obligations only in a hollow, abstract, self-serving devotion to social justice, seeking refuge from the meaninglessness of their own lives in the therapeutic consolations of “identity” and “self-care”—and this was destroying the country.

It is easy enough to find examples in accordance with the theory. For example: I once worked briefly at Stanford University’s alumni magazine, where my responsibilities involved reading over very large numbers of obituaries of graduates of the university. Though Stanford’s reputation has itself changed in the last two generations from that of a regional to that of a national university, the work provided some insight into the changing habits of American elites. The graduates of the postwar years overwhelmingly moved back to the mid-sized cities in California where they had grown up and became general practitioners or lawyers in local firms. They were well-to-do; they were active in their spare time and after retirement in the Rotary Club or the charitable arms of their churches. They served on the boards of local schools and hospitals.

There are fewer obituaries for graduates of recent years, a more diverse group in several ways. Products of elite universities are good at staying alive. But those there were suggested lives entirely different. This younger generation moved to New York and made a career in finance or stayed in Silicon Valley to work in the tech industry. They did not return to their native towns, they had little to do with civil society in the new places they lived—had seemingly few associations at all beyond their nuclear family, if they made one.

In his essay marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the posthumous publication of Revolt of the Elites, Rod Dreher lauds Lasch for his prescience in charting the decline of solidarity in American life and the rise of therapeutic politics. Dreher’s interest in Lasch is clear enough. Against socialism but disillusioned by the globalized market, skeptical both of foreign wars and political correctness, having lately flirted with the idea that liberalism depends on the “borrowed capital” of its pre-liberal inheritance, Dreher sees in Lasch someone who readily agrees with him on the major issues. They part ways on two chief points: communism and faith.

Dreher is a staunch anticommunist. Lasch was not. Dreher, a Christian, sees the decline of the American republic (that worldly thing) as inevitable, unless divine providence should intervene, dispatching “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” If we really are to try to recover a notion of the common good against the rise of therapeutic individualism and its politically correct paladins, something he considers doubtful, we might as well look to Poland and Hungary where, as he says, governing right-wing parties have had considerable success despite having made “mistakes.”

Lasch, on the other hand, had largely become (by the end of his career) an American republican, small-r, of a very old stamp. He was secular, despite a residual mainline Protestantism. Trusting in God to send his saints would have seemed to him useless pietism. In Revolt, he seems to find all the solutions to our current plight lying ready-made in the history and thought of the American 19th century. What to do about the scourge of relativism? Just revive Dewey’s philosophical pragmatism. Discontented with the self-serving elitism of the media? Let’s have Horace Greeley and the partisan press back. This nostalgic attitude and exclusive focus on America is surprising, from a reader of Marx who began his career scolding American liberals for being insufficiently worldly.

The point on journalism is worth underlining. Lasch criticizes the anti-democratic premise of modern journalism, which following the lead of Walter Lippmann found in the ideal of “objectivity” cover for its elitist conviction that the mass of people was incapable of comprehending the world. To Lasch, the republican, the people’s judgment is not improved by how much information they know, but by how much responsibility they are permitted to assume. This doctrine of journalistic objectivity has, since the time of Lasch’s writing, halfway collapsed. Half of the American republic has openly rejected mainstream journalism. Journalism, in turn, has partly doubled down on the ideal of objectivity and “truth,” and partly reconfigured itself to provide, instead of information, affirmation—“moral clarity”—to an elite audience, merely making (as Lasch might say) explicit what had been tacit about the Lippmannian project all along.

Lasch points out an important distortion in the prevailing language in which American liberals speak about their society: the concept of “social mobility.” This is supposed to be the great desideratum of domestic economic policy, to allow some people born, say, in the bottom quintile of incomes to rise to the top quintile. This is the “American dream” of rags to riches.

But it actually isn’t, says Lasch: “social mobility” is a 20th century counterfeit of the old American dream of economic autonomy, which had nothing to do with the relative question of individuals’ wealth compared to society. The original American dream was to achieve self-sufficiency: you have your farm, you live off it, you don’t rely on an employer for a paycheck or on the government for support. It doesn’t matter how many people are richer than you—why grudge them, so long as you can get by and no one tells you what to do? “Social mobility” is for Lasch now a mere ruling myth: to the sociologists, who are quite frank on the point (I myself have heard this publicly stated at a Brookings panel), it does not matter whether social mobility exists, only that Americans can be convinced that it does. Lasch perceived too that a notable corollary of “social mobility,” affirmative action, opts for the purely symbolic elevation of a few members of a subaltern class to the status of aristocrats, in a gesture that serves to reinforce rather than to weaken social hierarchies.

Lasch held, with Montesquieu, that a democratic republic could not long survive with great inequality. But he also thought the prevailing discourse of inequality—that other great liberal economic watchword—foreboded an even stronger hostility to his treasured autonomy. Lasch justifies his refusal in Revolt to endorse social-democratic expansion of the welfare state on the grounds that depending on the state to sustain them would be an even worse blow for Americans’ autonomy than unbridled capitalism.

Economic autonomy, Lasch believed, had been the source of the moral strength and unity of the American republic. Class conflict and class hierarchies were equally discouraged: the nation’s majority both owned property and worked, formed strong communities of responsible citizens who chose to help each other instead of relying on paternalistic institutions, and participated in both intellectual and physical labor, keeping its discourse healthy.

Never mind that his evidence for this happy, autonomous republic is nearly all composed of statements by contemporaries—Lincoln’s attack on the “mud-sill” theorists, e.g.—rather than inquiry into the actual conditions which existed during the period: it is true that Lasch gave us a genuinely touching Jeffersonian lament. This does not change the fact that, as he admits elsewhere, this agrarian vision of autonomy has been obsolete for more than a century.

The economic, political and intellectual institutions capable of resolving the current crisis will not look like those of the 19th century, at least in form, but we can be confident they will look distinctively American.

Lasch is fairly criticized on other fronts—his opening of Revolt with the old canard about George H. W. Bush and the grocery store scanner, his claim about worsening crime in the cities when, in the 90’s, the situation was actually improving, or the way the book is studded with the usual meaningless statistics about Americans not being able to name all the amendments in the Bill of Rights (the likes of which are constantly being generated apparently for the sole purpose of being injected into works of social criticism). But this is the book’s core failing: at every point, the fierce accuracy of Lasch’s diagnoses dissolves into feeble, backwards-looking reminiscences when it comes time to suggest an alternative. This is not the usual problem of social criticism—that one does not know how to solve the problems one perceives—but something worse: the solutions on which Lasch was helplessly fixed are simply incoherent in the contemporary landscape, no less so in 1996 than in 2021.

Now that there is no land left to be homesteaded, how can Americans expect to recover the autonomy in economic life which, according to Lasch, guaranteed the country’s moral and political health? Dreher seems to think a solution may be found abroad, but—to say nothing of the examples he fixes on—the matter is difficult. We cannot find in other countries ready-made solutions to our problems which can simply be copied with a few modifications, as Dreher seems to suggest. Instead, we must inquire how other countries manage to find in their national repertoire what is necessary to address new problems. We must judge the results of these efforts: what has been gained? At what cost?

Only such an approach will help us address to our own challenge with our different national repertoire. A great part of that challenge lies in adapting Americanism to a landscape that makes dependence inevitable. No longer the autonomous moral creatures of Lasch’s writing—if indeed they ever were—Americans today depend on very much: on their employers, on tech companies and their platforms, on the rapidly changing moral rules on speech and conduct generated in elite circles, on federal business loans and checks to compensate for coronavirus damage, on global supply chains that rely on foreign countries hostile to the American worldview, and so on.

The economic, political and intellectual institutions capable of resolving the current crisis will not look like those of the 19th century, at least in form, but we can be confident they will look distinctively American. These institutions must, in order to succeed, appeal successfully at some level to the national philosophy that Lasch’s predecessor, the American historian Richard Hofstadter, called the “American political tradition.” Like the Progressives and New Dealers, like Reagan and even like Trump, the next exponents of this tradition will have no choice but to dress up new doctrines in the garb of old ones, to greater or less effect.

This will be necessary because even the elites that Lasch so despised remain Americans at heart. His assertion that they have “more in common with their counterparts in Brussels” than their countrymen is exactly wrong. Every European knows that the American who reads the New York Times is no less American in philosophy and outlook than the one who watches Fox News. America’s divisions between red and blue are real, but they continue to be best understood as a narcissism (a familiar word for Lasch) of small differences.