In cowboy hat and roller skate boots, Olivia Newton-John glided toward the viewer from the cover of the July 9, 1979 issue of People magazine. Below her, a headline announced that Americans had gone mad for roller skating. People went so far as to suggest that the fad, taken up by Cher, the Village People, JFK Jr., Andy Warhol, Newton-John and other celebrities might inspire citizens to forgo cars and, voilà, solve the energy crisis plaguing the country. Inside the issue, however, a more pessimistic voice could be found. People featured an interview with the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch. Though the cover story promised a future where fitness fads solve political problems, Lasch presented a more dour message about the crises facing Americans in the 1970s: “I have no easy solutions,” he grumbled.
Lasch’s appearance in People stemmed from the surprising success of his book, The Culture of Narcissism. Despite—or perhaps because of—its pessimistic tone and grim analysis of contemporary American culture, Narcissism had cracked the bestseller list in the spring of 1979, going so far as to attract the attention of President Jimmy Carter, who met with Lasch and a group of intellectuals while preparing his ill-fated “Crisis of Confidence” speech. America’s economy was mired in “stagflation,” while its international standing had waned after the Vietnam War. A kind of desperation and apathy dominated the country’s mood. But Lasch saw this desperation as signaling not a momentary shift, but rather the decay of certain ideals:
Bourgeois society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas. It has lost both the capacity and the will to confront the difficulties that threaten to overwhelm it. … This book … describes a way of life that is dying—the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.
Many at the time missed the point of Lasch’s dark, brooding analysis, which applied psychoanalytic theory to the broader cultural setting of American life, arguing not so much that Americans had grown self-involved during the so-called “Me Decade” as that the modern institutions of what he called the “therapeutic state” and of consumer capitalism had infantilized them. The term “narcissism” meant more than simply self-involvement for Lasch: it indicated a frail sense of self, weak ties to one’s community and feelings of despair. The result, Lasch suggested, was a population of clinical narcissists, oscillating between outsized fantasies of their own grandiosity—dreaming of their own celebrity—and recurring anxieties about even getting by.
What set Lasch apart from most critics of American selfishness was that he did not blame individuals, or “culture,” for the emergence of narcissism; he blamed larger structures of power. The welfare state, together with consumerist society, had penetrated to the core of American lives, stripping them of both inner resources and immediate spaces of control in their families and communities. The state’s “helping professions” (social workers, therapists, child-rearing “experts,” etc.) offered social assistance, but in the bargain they undermined the role of parents and local communities. The market offered new products and opportunities for pleasure, but it “simultaneously [made man] acutely unhappy with his lot.” Both the state and the market promoted themselves as offering freedom through abundance and progress, but in fact “eroded everyday competence, in one area after another”:
Having surrendered most of his technical skills to the corporation, [the American individual] can no longer provide for his material needs. As the family loses not only its productive functions but many of its reproductive functions as well, men and women no longer manage even to raise their children without the help of certified experts.
The Culture of Narcissism solidified Lasch’s reputation as a leading anti-modernist critic of an America that seemed to have lost its balance as it rollerskated into oblivion. Mistrusting America’s affluence and growing technological achievements, Lasch even critiqued the anti-authoritarian liberation struggles of the 1960s, which belonged for him to the same modernist cult of progress that, failing to recognize necessary limits, would destroy all in its path. The counterculture’s myth of exaggerated self-realization was but the flipside of the retreat into basic self-preservation. Detached by state and market from connections to a more sustaining sense of purpose or obligation, Americans inhabited a culture that left them rootless.
But Lasch should not be remembered merely as a grumbling reactionary. What he feared was “liberation,” not “modernity”—dismissing anti-modernist nostalgia as the fantasy of progress in reverse. For most of his life (he died of cancer in 1994), he remained committed to a more egalitarian society and clung to the hope that change might still occur. As he said toward the end of a career that had turned, beginning with Narcissism, increasingly dark and pessimistic: he still had faith even though he lacked optimism. It was a statement that flummoxed many interviewers, but it is key to understanding Lasch’s complex vision of American culture—and of the role of the social critic within it.
Social Criticism for Social Crisis
What should we expect from social criticism? When should we say that the social critic has actually served his society? Today’s most popular social critics are barely critical at all, often offering platitudes of flat worlds, creative classes, long tails and disruptive technologies. Meanwhile, a robust world of blogs and small magazines is split between desolate cynicism and simplistic earnestness. The pages and websites of venues such as Harper’s, the Baffler, n+1, Jacobin and the New Inquiry are filled with piercing, often quite funny, critiques by the likes of Thomas Frank and others; but these works often end up calling for a return to vanished modes of political and cultural life or, worse still, celebrating the subversive pleasures of sardonic hopelessness itself. Meanwhile, in publications such as the Believer, a new sincerity glows, insisting that in place of critique we “just say yes” (as Believer founder Dave Eggers insisted we do in a notorious 2000 interview). Both camps would do well by reading Lasch’s first book—The New Radicalism in America—his diagnosis of how twentieth-century intellectuals had mistaken their own cultural rebellions for political activism.
In our own era, continuous commentary on the political maneuverings around DOMA, health care and immigration has sometimes obscured a massive failure to engage with the issues of poverty, mass incarceration, growing wealth disparity, corporatization, endless war, ecological catastrophe and the striking abandonment of the concept of the common good. Lasch set a useful bar for commenting on matters of political strategy without abandoning either larger social analysis or cultural critique. Although best known for his later works, it was during the 1960s that Lasch wrote most widely and actively—about everything from the war in Vietnam to the American family, from the New Left and the counterculture to the fate of the working classes in the so-called postindustrial economy. Throughout these essays, he insisted that deep inquiry and careful analysis could go along with smart action, and that shallow cultural rebellion need not replace sustained ideological and political struggle.
Lasch’s social criticism from the Sixties provides a model, imperfect but worthy, of using the firm ground of American social values to make a stand, of finding a way forward without insisting on the chimera of progress. Particularly for those who are sympathetic to yet dissatisfied with the left in America, there is much to be learned from Lasch’s ability to criticize liberalism and progressivism, to fuse historically-informed analysis with explorations of political strategy, and to uncover a countertradition to the worst aspects of modern American life.
Beyond Left and Right
With the anti-war movement growing, civil rights struggles widening and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society taking shape, the 1960s seemed destined to extend the intellectual dominance of American liberalism. It was at this moment that Lasch emerged as one of America’s most astute critics of liberalism. For Lasch, modern liberalism’s great flaw was its contempt for limits. Forever urging Americans to move forward, modern liberalism (in whatever guise it took) failed to root them in a meaningful context in which tradition could mingle with transformation. The liberal left’s obsession with liberation even worked against its ideal of social equality, playing “into the hands of the corporations, which find it all too easy to exploit a radicalism that equates liberation with hedonistic self-indulgence and freedom from family ties.”
To Lasch’s mind, even what passed for conservatism in post-Sixties America—Ronald Reagan’s New Right, as well as the rise of neoconservatism—fell under the umbrella of liberalism broadly construed. These movements were but shrill reactions to the radical upheavals of the 1960s left (this was especially true of neoconservatism, which was founded mostly by defected left-wing intellectuals). They emphasized a faux-traditionalism whose veneration of the past barely masked support for the expansion of corporate capitalism. Rather than preserving the values of localism, community, family and self-reliance that it so sanctimoniously endorsed, the right in fact swept them into the nostalgized dustbin of history. Yet the right had “managed to present itself, infuriatingly, as a form of cultural populism, even though its own … economic program … seeks only to perpetuate the existing distribution of wealth and power.”
All of Lasch’s work focused to some degree on reformulating American intellectual life outside the frame of liberalism, but in his essays of the late Sixties and early Seventies, he began to articulate a new kind of radicalism, one that resisted both the empty nostalgia found on the post-Sixties right as well as the fixation on progress and liberation found on the battered post-Sixties left. Although he was committed to Marxist economic analysis as a necessary starting point for social critique, Lasch emphasized the need to engage with “a long tradition of conservative criticism of modern culture” frequently dismissed by Marxists as retrograde. Indeed, the ideals of transformation and conservation might mingle in productive ways, as they had in the tradition of socialist social criticism dating back at least to William Morris and John Ruskin.
In his breakthrough 1965 book, The New Radicalism in America, Lasch criticized liberal intellectuals of the early twentieth century for conflating their own need to break free of middle-class bourgeois mores with the wider need to create a more just and democratic society in the United States. But the problem for social critics on the left went even deeper. The challenge, which remains familiar today, was to find some way of articulating leftist ideals without seeming to abandon the everyday concerns of ordinary Americans or condescend to them from the heights of technocratic expertise:
Faced with the embarrassing gap between Leftist ideology and “existing popular consciousness” … the American Left has had to choose, in effect, between two equally futile and self-defeating strategies: either to wait helplessly for the revolution, while fulminating against “capitalism,” or to try to gain its objectives by outflanking public opinion, giving up the hope of creating a popular constituency for social reform, and relying instead on the courts, the mass media, and the administrative bureaucracy.
To help Americans construct a “new culture,” Lasch thought, social critics would do well to resuscitate a conservative-minded emphasis on self-reliance, autonomy, community spirit, directness, commitment and a sense of limits. Lasch distinguished his case from the “so-called cultural revolution identified with one wing of the new left.” That revolution may have had “many promising possibilities,” but “in its present form it [did] not represent an alternative social vision capable of attracting large masses to its support.” Radicals were wrong to overthrow all tradition even if much of it was fraught with inequality.
A Socialism Suitable for America
Throughout his career, Lasch sought a form of radicalism that neither relied on personal liberation nor implied rigid submission to outmoded ideologies. In The Agony of the American Left, he framed the problem this way: “The almost overwhelming difficulties confronting the radical movement in America are suggested, more clearly perhaps than by anything else, by the vagueness and imprecision of the term ‘socialism.’” In Lasch’s time as in our own, the term “socialism” is often reduced to a belief in so-called “big government.” For Lasch, however, the term could mean much more. Most of all, it served to emphasize a commitment to developing political and cultural mechanisms that gave people control over their lives. Social criticism’s role was to elucidate why socialism was essential to the political and psychic survival of Americans, and also to demonstrate how much more consistent it was with American ideals than many in the country assumed.
In his historical surveys of radicalism in early-twentieth-century America, Lasch argued that the divergent traditions of populism and socialism intersected to produce “the beginnings of a mass movement against the dehumanizing effects of the new industrial order.” At its peak in 1912, the Socialist Party boasted 118,000 members; the largest of the socialist newspapers, the Appeal to Reason of Girard, Kansas, enjoyed a weekly circulation of 761,747. The party’s strength lay in “its ability to combine a commitment to thorough-going social transformation with ‘constructive’ political action, in the party’s terminology—that is, responsiveness to the needs of its constituents.” If socialism in American began to die out in the aftermath of World War I, it was not because there was no need or sympathy for it among the American populace, but rather because an influx of ideology “drawn from European experience and tied organizationally to the fluctuating political requirements of the Soviet Union” divided the movement and alienated segments of its leadership from their constituents. Lasch called for a revival of early American socialism’s broad-based radicalism. Especially for those advocating for fundamental change in America, it was imperative to learn from those “impressive and partially successful attempts to create a mass-based, indigenous radicalism among disaffected groups—socialism among the working-class poor and among middle-class intellectuals, black nationalism in the Negro ghetto.”
By mining the ideals and values of this older tradition, Lasch believed that the social critic could do more to advance the cause of socialism than economic and political analysis could do on their own. Culture mattered here as much as redistributive politics. The task was to nurture a radicalism that intersected with the time-honored values still lingering in the hearts and minds of Americans both radical and conservative. But this would require drawing heavily on “older values which the ruling classes were in the process of gradually discarding”:
In our own time, the ruling class has broken the last ties to its own cultural traditions and has imposed on society a technological anticulture characterized by its ruthless disregard of the past. The agent of the new anticulture is the bulldozer, which destroys familiar landmarks, liquidates entire communities, and breaks down every form of continuity. … “Revolution” today may represent, among other things, the only hope of preserving what is worth preserving from the past.
What traditions of community, localism, self-reliance, work and limitation might conjoin with liberal values to address the modern economic, political and cultural situation? The social critic, Lasch thought, should work to help Americans understand why they felt so enraged at—and so helpless to change—the world around them. This meant resisting easy answers, including the easy answer that often went by the name of “revolution.” The work of revolution was always, in part, the work of preservation. The social critic’s role thus required him not so much to reject the past as to sift through it and pick out which materials might be of continued use.
“The Many-Faceted Crisis of Work”
Most of all, in a culture rapidly moving away from older notions of craftsmanship and professional responsibility, the social critic had to find a way of rehabilitating the nobility and satisfaction of independent work. Yet this recovery had to avoid the temptation to retreat into fantastical escapism or to trumpet individual “choice” in a “free” marketplace. The hard and urgent project was to create institutional contexts in which individuals could make professional choices that actually mattered.
If Lasch were around today, he would undoubtedly see Occupy Wall Street as a source of both optimism and despair—as many of us have. One of his interests would be the movement’s vacillation between two conflicting visions of work. Its populist ninety-nine-versus-one-percent rhetoric, as well as its emphasis on debt and widespread unemployment, seem to point to a society in which good and meaningful work might be available for all. Yet in the carnivalesque atmosphere of the protests, with their drum circles and festive feel, there was also a sense that all work was oppressive, that a revolution would entail liberation from work entirely. Forty years ago, Lasch had already criticized the tendency for certain radicals to “define personal liberation … as freedom from work, discipline and from authority in general”:
The trouble with this definition of the “cultural revolution” is that it tends to divert attention from work to leisure, thereby reinforcing one of the strongest and most dangerous tendencies of advanced capitalist society—the attempt to compensate for the meaninglessness of work by holding out the possibility of spiritual fulfillment through consumption. Contrary to a widespread cliché of popular sociology, “the challenge of leisure” is not the most important issue in advanced society. The most important issue remains work—the loss of autonomy on the job, the collapse of high standards of workmanship, the pervasive demoralization that results from the mass production of goods that are widely recognized as intrinsically worthless by those who produce them, and the general crisis of a culture historically oriented around the dignity of labor.
Counterculturalists, Lasch believed, tended to picture “utopia as generalized leisure, thereby reaffirming, instead of contradicting, the vision of industrial society itself.” Yet, Lasch contended, “centuries of experience … have taught us that work is one of the deepest of man’s needs.” The task confronting the left was therefore not to overthrow the work ethic—which was already under attack from within capitalist society—but to invest it with new meaning.
In the late Sixties and early Seventies, such concerns informed Lasch’s criticism of a militant student movement that increasingly saw itself at the cutting edge of revolution. Suspended in an extended adolescence during a time when access to higher education rapidly expanded in the United States, university students became “temporary members of a leisure class.” This meant that they experienced life at a distance from the immediate pressures of the industrial system—or, as one analyst whom Lasch admired called it, the “super-industrial” system of a society increasingly concentrated on finance, information and symbolic analysis rather than on straightforward factory production. In their temporary identities as students, young Americans were in no position to satisfy the need for a more durable vision of social change.
At the same time, Lasch might have looked with some suspicion on the Fox News-style criticism that the Occupy movement represents merely the rumblings of a temporary leisure class, suspended in a world of hedonism while they wait for “real life” to begin. For this criticism relies on an opposition that Lasch believed was rapidly evaporating even in his own time. College students in the 1970s, he argued, were already experiencing the alienations that lay in their future. Although the need “for large numbers of trained technicians and professionals [had] led to an unprecedented expansion of higher education,” he noted, “in the course of its expansion, the university [had] come more and more to be operated on industrial lines.” Because they were positioned as “prospective workers,” students tended to “experience the many-faceted crisis of work” in their education itself. The modern system of higher education—large classes, instrumentalized versions of the liberal arts, a sense that their education was neither transformative nor practical—brought them face-to-face with “not only their enforced leisure but also the knowledge that they are being trained for meaningless work.”
At this level, Lasch believed that there was a “possibility that the university and university politics might come to play an important role in the development of a new kind of ‘working-class’ consciousness.” Perhaps students, especially those who had grown dispirited with the demise of the New Left in 1969 and the thinness of countercultural “lifestyle” as a mode of revolt, might connect to the working-class not via some formulaic model from Marxist-Leninist theory, but rather as part of a broader movement of professionals witnessing the deskilling of their jobs right alongside the traditional proletariat. “The industrial system’s need for the carefully controlled production of knowledge means that increasing numbers of intellectual workers will face declining autonomy, regimentation, and loss of status,” Lasch wrote. “Their common subordination to bureaucratic control may overcome the many barriers between the professional and technical strata and the new working class, bringing into being a new labor movement.”
Lasch was hesitantly hopeful. He noticed former New Left activists joining the workforce, and “rediscovering the importance of institutional ties.” Instead of denouncing all professional organizations as “purely imprisoning,” these new workers were growing more interested in the kinds of solidarity they might discover in the workplace, as sites of potential “ferment,” “fellowship” and “support for the creative use of one’s talents.” To Lasch, a “revolt against narrow professionalism and professional irresponsibility” was key to the unleashing of radicalism in America. But it had to be a “revolt not against the professions but within the professions.” One had to, in the language of our own times, occupy institutions of work in order to infuse them with new values. “What seems to be needed,” he mused,
is a fusion of community politics and trade union politics—two dissident traditions that have increasingly grown apart. The product of this fusion would not be simply a new unionism or a new kind of community organizing but a new form of politics altogether, centered on the factory—and on the research and development laboratory, the intellectual assembly line, the professions, the media—but always heedful of work in its larger social implications.
Today, as many students sink into crushing debt as the price for credentials that increasingly do not even guarantee professional employment, Lasch’s observations about the relationship between student life and work seem all the more applicable. His insights—about the connections between an alienating education and future work, and about the import of workspaces for building solidarity—offer new directions for the ninety-nine percent. Lasch’s reflections on student-worker dynamics indicate that the contemporary effort to delineate between the large, quite diverse group of have-nots and the increasingly small group of elites, must focus not only on the ability to own a home or participate in the consumer market, but also on the draining of meaning from work at all levels.
The New Left and Ordinary Americans
His reconceptualization of the left-right divide, as well as his focus on the topic of work, led Lasch to develop a far greater sensitivity to the anxieties and concerns of Americans who were unsympathetic to the more militant calls for social change in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Lasch did not simply ignore or explain away the reactionary dimensions of the petit bourgeois or the emerging New Right in America at that time (as, say, Thomas Frank did in What’s the Matter with Kansas?)—he grappled with them. And he did so in ways that are useful for considering the potential intersections between right and left, and the social critic and society, today.
Consider the rhetoric around an issue like the environment. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Lasch was already encouraging social critics to address what he saw as the decoupling of ecological issues from everyday economic ones. Today, the importance of “green jobs” is occasionally remarked upon by Democratic politicians, but by and large the need to “grow the economy,” as the odd phrase goes, is placed in opposition to environmental matters—as if the common man is being asked to sacrifice his job for the sake of benefits that are unsure and which anyway he is unlikely to enjoy. Rarely do liberals emphasize that our exploitation of the natural world will inevitably hinder the growth of the economy. Lasch saw this lack of clarity as an opportunity for social criticism. “One of the major tasks confronting the left,” he wrote, “is to show how the urban crisis and the more general ‘environmental crisis’ originate in capitalist production”:
Agitation around ecological issues, if these issues were properly explained, would help to create a common consciousness of deprivation among students, workers, and members of the “new middle class” by showing that the industrial system victimizes everybody—except the very rich, who can provide themselves with means of escape from the environmental devastation that their own policies have brought about. Pollution, noise, congestion, violence, crime, the physical and moral destruction of the city in the interests of developers, the ravaging of the landscape, suburban sprawl, and the deterioration of the schools have created widespread fear, resentment, and anger in the working and middle classes; but this anger, instead of venting itself against the corporations, too often finds secondary targets—the blacks, liberals, radical students, “bureaucracy,” “government interference.” The left then misinterprets the symptoms of popular resentment as incorrigible racism, devotion to the status quo, and proto-fascism, and writes off the working class and new middle class as reactionary. Instead, the left should be trying to demonstrate that the deterioration of the environment and the collapse of public service, which people experience most acutely in their capacity as consumers and citizens, must be attributed not to the blacks or to the state but to the corporations and to a system of production that has outlived its economic and social utility.
This kind of forceful language was required, Lasch felt, to shift the debate over ecological catastrophe away from the sphere of consumption, in which by buying “greener” we might save ourselves and the world, and back to the processes of production, where the exploitation and expropriation actually occurs. Recoupling this delinked aspect of environmental degradation and capitalist expropriation is not only a better way of understanding the problems that Americans face; it might turn the environment into a source of common cause and solidarity.
Lasch’s perspective might also inspire better thinking today about the connections between the climate crisis and the economic crisis. These are concurrent phenomena, of course, but they are rarely explored as interlinked political problems. How might the critique of America’s reliance on fossil fuels be linked to widening economic inequalities? Is there something pernicious in the very concept of “growth”? Celebrated by Republican and Democrat politicians alike, rarely questioned as an ideal by mainstream economists, and even utilized as the primary language of personal development and happiness in what Lasch later bemoaned as America’s “culture of narcissism,” perhaps the perpetual demand for “growth” comes with its own costs—to our environment, our traditions, and even our psychological well-being. In place of the moralistic tone of much radical environmentalism, emphasizing the limitations of the ideal of limitless forward motion might open up opportunities for a different, more inclusive, brand of radicalism. But this would also require moving beyond portrayals of working-class Americans as either Archie Bunker reactionaries or, the mere flip side of this image, as militant trade unionists marching in solidarity toward the Marxist future, hand in hand with their radical brethren from the academy. It means taking seriously the populist perspective of Americans suspicious of all larger forces—legal, political, cultural and economic—sweeping through their lives, upending their sense of autonomy and control.
Is This What We Want?
Lasch’s writing remained passionate and cogent to the end, but he grew more bitter and, at times, more brittle in his attacks on the modern liberal narrative of ever-increasing individual rights and collective progress. Gone was the balance between hope and despair, typical of his Sixties and early-Seventies criticism. Moreover, Lasch himself seemed at times to abandon his commitment to taking seriously the ideas and values of ordinary Americans, ironically in favor of the seemingly endless task of chastising other social critics for failing to take seriously the ideas and values of ordinary Americans. The move toward lambasting professional elites at the end of his career seemed oddly to reproduce the very “new radicalism” that he had so cogently critiqued in The New Radicalism in America, with Lasch rather narcissistically projecting his isolation from other intellectuals into a fantasy of “anti-intellectualism” among the lower classes.
Yet there remains even in Lasch’s late books, and especially in his final book, True and Only Heaven, hints and portents of what a truly engaged and “radical” social criticism might look like. A test for this criticism would be its ability to provide a vision of the good life that rejected a progressive fantasy of abundance without sliding into nostalgia for yesteryear. Already in the early Seventies, Lasch had begun to explore how Americans could be made to wake from the dream of perpetual progress:
It is only therefore when we find ourselves imprisoned in our private cars, marvelously mobile but unable to go anywhere because the highways are choked with traffic; when we find ourselves surrounded by modern conveniences but unable to breathe the air; provided with unprecedented leisure to fish in polluted rivers and swim at polluted beaches; provided with the means to prolong life beyond the point where it offers any pleasure; equipped with the power to create human life, which will simultaneously destroy the meaning of life—it is only, in short, when we are confronted with the contradictions of individualism and private enterprise in their most immediate, unmistakable, and by now familiar form that we are forced to reconsider our exaltation of the individual over the life of the community, and to submit technological innovations to a question we have so far been careful not to ask: Is this what we want?
By connecting the big questions of liberal progress and perfectibility to an even larger, more pressing question—“Is this what we want?”—Lasch challenged his readers to search for a way out of the impasse where the only two options seemed to be a crackpot realism that insisted on technological degradation as a necessary corollary of progress, and a glazed-over utopian drive for perfection. As was so often the case, Lasch looked to the past—and to the populist past—for help articulating such a path. In place of the idea of history as linear progress, he argued for “concepts like nemesis, fate, fortune, or providence.” Instead of “luxury for all,” he endorsed “competence, as [American populists] would have called it—a piece of earth, a small shop, a useful calling.” Competence, Lasch believed, “was a more reasonable as well as a more worthy ambition” than consumerism or perfectionism, embodying “a humbler set of expectations” in addition to “a more strenuous and morally demanding definition of the good life.”
Populism, Lasch acknowledged, was becoming “increasingly defensive”and had always expressed “some of the worst impulses in the American character: anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, racism.” The movement had, nevertheless, also offered what Lasch called the “only serious attempt to answer the great question of twentieth-century politics: What was to replace proprietorship as the material foundation of civic virtue?” To be sure, the Tea Party—currently our most prominent representative of plebeian radicalism—repeats the quasi-fascistic characteristics that Lasch admits have always played a part in American populism. Yet lurking below the Tea Party’s reactionary surface are other energies and ideologies, other politics: most of all a desire to hang on to something real, material, immediate and autonomous in a world that feels as if it is sucking life itself up into the “cloud” of expertise, wealth and the disembodied forces of finance. It is easy to dismiss the rage that distorts those impulses as simple prejudice (at our black president, for instance); it is harder, but perhaps also more hopeful, to see it as indicative of the frustrations many Americans feel with what Lasch called “the exhaustion of the progressive tradition.”
For social critics, the task now requires recalibrating away from cynical glibness or faux-naïve sincerity, to something more than a “wistful hope against hope that things will somehow work out for the best” or its opposite: a forsaking of hope altogether. Lasch urged us to seek out and recover “a more vigorous form of hope, which trusts life without denying its tragic character.” At its best, Lasch’s criticism gestures toward a form of social inquiry that he was himself able to pursue only sporadically. So bitter on account of the contempt with which other elites seemed to hold the ideals of America’s middle class, Lasch never got around to fully imagining a world that took those ideals seriously. That work remains.