Christopher Lasch’s Quarrel with Liberalism 2

It is possible to be messianic in the effort to root out messian¬ism, though. Even pragmatism can suffer from hubris; and Lasch’s detection of a self-aggrandizing impulse, a secret determination to convert the world to its own “anti-ideological” ideology, in the osten¬sibly instrumentalist politics of midcentury liberalism was an in¬sight whose accuracy was confirmed, for many people, by America’s subsequent entanglement, under a series of liberal administrations, in Vietnam. Lasch’s accusation was also, of course, one that any lib¬eral disenchanted with the self-righteous certainty of some of his fellow liberals might have made. It need not have led anyone to abandon liberalism. After all, a liberal might reasonably ask, so long as we don’t force people to become like us, why shouldn’t we hope that liberal institutions—democratic societies and free markets— become universal?
For Lasch, however, the point had a different consequence. He began to see not only liberalism, but the whole march of “progress” itself as a creeping tyranny of centralized social and political con¬trol. Though liberalism was the ascendant political theory of this historical process, even many of the adversaries of liberalism, Lasch concluded, shared its optimism and its passion for transforming people’s lives. In The New Radicalism in America (1965) and The Agony of the American Left (1969), he considered some of these ad¬versaries: the “cultural radicals,” such as Mabel Dodge Luhan and Randolph Bourne; the turn-of-the-century populists and socialists; and the leaders of the progressive movement, which, during the first two decades of the century, sought to restore a sense of “civic vir¬tue” to American political and economic life. Among these, only populism and socialism—“two broad patterns of opposition to cor¬porate capitalism, occasionally converging but ideologically dis¬tinct”—seemed to Lasch to have offered a genuine alternative to the corporate economy and the liberal state. Their failure, early in the century, marked for him the death of all real dissent.
For the reformers and cultural radicals, he decided, were in the end only participating in the general effort to “enlighten”—and thus remold—the citizenry from the top down, through public education and artistic and literary culture; and this was an enterprise so con¬genial to the liberal mentality that liberals found it easy to adopt the radical style, and to patronize intellectual culture, in a way that ren¬dered those traditions powerless. The Kennedy administration, with its indulgence of artists and intellectuals enthralled by the illu¬sion that they were having an influence on the exercise of political power, represented, as Lasch saw it, the culmination of this process. As for the progressive movement, associated with the fol¬lowers of Theodore Roosevelt and with liberal militants such as Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and Walter Weyl, it was progres¬sive “chiefly in attacking the archaic entrepreneurial capitalism the existence of which impeded the rationalization of American indus¬try,” and thus “actually served the needs of the industrial system.” In seeking to reform the system rather than to resist it—to discover ways for more people to partake of the material prosperity capital-ism provided rather than ways to prevent big business from turning people into well-fed “wage slaves”—the progressives only smoothed capitalism’s path. So that by midcentury, Lasch concluded, it had become “almost impossible for criticism of existing policies to be¬come part of political discourse. The language of American politics increasingly resembles an Orwellian monologue. ”
Having come to the bottom of the political barrel, Lasch turned first to social history and then to jeremiad. Haven in a Heartless World (1977) proposed that the history of modern society could be described as “the socialization of production, followed by the so¬cialization of reproduction.” By the first phrase, Lasch meant the division of labor that accompanied the emergence of industrial capitalism, and that, by depriving people of control over their work, deprived them as well of the virtues unalienated labor instills. A day on an assembly line spent fixing the heads on pins, to use Adam Smith’s famous example of specialization in The Wealth of Nations, is not likely to lead a person to an elevated conception of life, or to give him a sense of independence and self-confidence. (This was a warning about the moral effects of specialization that Smith himself recorded elsewhere in his writings.) By “the socialization of repro¬duction,” Lasch meant the proliferation, beginning in the nine¬teenth century, of the so-called helping professions: the doctors, psychologists, teachers, child-guidance experts, juvenile court offi¬cers, and so forth, who, by their constant intervention in people’s private lives, “eroded the capacity for self-help and social inven¬tion.”
This second development constitutes, in Lasch’s view, liberal¬ism’s worst betrayal. For liberalism, he argued, had struck a deal: in return for transforming the worker from an independent producer of goods into a fixer of heads on pins, it was agreed that people would be free to pursue happiness and virtue in their private lives in whatever manner they chose. The workplace was thus severed from the home, and the family became the “haven in a heartless world.” But no sooner was the deal made, Lasch argued, than liberalism re¬neged. Private life was immediately made prey to the quasi-official helping professions and the “forces of organized virtue,” led by “feminists, temperance advocates, educational reformers, liberal ministers, penologists, doctors, and bureaucrats.” “From the mo¬ment the conception of the family as a refuge made its historical ap¬pearance, the same forces that gave rise to the new privacy began to erode it. . . . The hope that private transactions could make up for the collapse of communal traditions and civic order” was killed by organized kindness.
Modern life, in Lasch’s conception, is thus predicated on one basic transaction: the exchange of genuine independence for pseudo-liberation. Liberals and reformers will free us from the re¬pressiveness of the patriarchal family, of the closed ethnic com¬munity-even of our own unhappiness. All we have to do is to surrender ourselves to the benevolent paternalism of the sociolo¬gists, psychiatrists, educators, and corporate and welfare bureau¬crats. But those “helpers” have effectively destroyed the very institutions, such as the nuclear family, through which character and independence were traditionally instilled. The responsibility for raising children has been lifted from the shoulders of parents (thus discrediting their authority) and placed in the offices of medical and educational professionals and experts; a pattern of “normal” devel¬opment is now enforced by the public schools, whose purpose has been reconceived as socialization—turning people into good citi¬zens on the liberal model, rather than simply introducing them to knowledge. “Liberating” people has meant, in short, converting them into permanent dependents of the modern state and its “hu¬man science” apparatchiks.

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