Christopher Lasch’s Quarrel with Liberalism 4

The True and Only Heaven was the first place in which Lasch tried to suggest, with some degree of comprehensiveness, a way out of the regrettable condition he thought the modern liberal view had left us in. It is much the longest of his books, and it suffers from many of the faults one has come to associate with his work: it lingers pedantically on minor matters and dashes through major ones; it makes much of points almost everyone would concede and ignores obvious objections to its more controversial assertions; and it is written from a position that had hardened into something like dogmatism. Lasch was, after all, a writer who had argued that “all medical technology has done is to increase patients’ dependence on machines and the medical experts who operate [them]”; that “new ideas of sexual liberation—the celebration of oral sex, masturbation, and homosexuality—spring from the prevailing fear of heterosexual passion, even of sexual intercourse itself”; that the reliance on medical intervention during pregnancy “helped women in their campaign for voluntary motherhood by raising the cost of pregnancy to their husbands—not only the financial cost but the emotional cost of the doctor’s intrusion into the bedroom, his usurpation of the husband’s sexual prerogatives”; that the imposition of child labor laws “obscured the positive possibility of children working alongside their parents at jobs of recognized importance”; and that “the prison life of the past looks in our time like liberation itself.”
Like all of Lasch’s books, The True and Only Heaven was clearly designed to be responsive to contemporary anxieties—in this case, to concern about the ecological dangers that are bound, it seems, to accompany the spread of market economies across the globe. Lasch argued that if we continue to believe, as the religion of progress en-courages us to believe, that somehow everyone in the world can be given the standard of living of a middle-class American, the planet will be used up long before we ever arrive at that dubious utopia. He was not the first person to sound this warning, but he did, as usual, sound it in a provocative manner.
By the time of The True and Only Heaven, Lasch had come to re¬gard the belief in progress not as simply an interesting paradox in twentieth-century liberal thought, but as the dominant ideology of modern history. It is in the name of progress, he thought, that tradi¬tional sources of happiness and virtue—work, faith, the family, even an independent sense of self—are being destroyed; and he began his book with an analysis of the false values of the modern liberal outlook, proposing, for each value or attitude to be rejected, an alternative. This discussion is filled with references to various thinkers and ideas, as is the case throughout The True and Only Heaven; but references to specific policies or social arrangements are scarce, so that the analysis has a theoretical or abstract cast. Lasch’s purpose, evidently, was to establish a vocabulary.
Lasch argued, as he had in his first book, nearly thirty years ear¬lier, that liberals are optimists: they believe in an unlimited ability to provide for an ever-expanding array of human wants. A worthier sentiment, he felt, is “hope”—an acceptance of limits without de¬spair (as he had described it in The Minimal Self). Liberals espouse a kind of Enlightenment universalism; they regard their truths as self-evident to all reasonable people, and therefore as applicable to everyone. He recommended instead an emphasis on particular¬ism—a recognition of the persistence of national and ethnic loyal¬ties. Nostalgia, he argued, is progress’s “ideological twin,” since it is a way of thinking about the past that makes it seem irrecoverable, and makes change seem inevitable. He proposed “memory” as an al¬ternative, a way of seeing the past and present as continuous. In¬stead of the modern conception of people as consumers, working only to provide themselves with the means to satisfy material wants, he suggested a conception of people as producers, working in order to acquire the virtues labor instills—among them independence, responsibility, and self-sufficiency. And in place of “self-interest,” which defines the economic man of liberal individualism, he pro¬posed “virtue,” which defines the citizen ready to take an active part in community life.
This much of Lasch’s argument, directed at the mentality that sees no limits to economic growth, and that understands the ends of social and economic policy to be simply the creation and satisfac¬tion of more consumers, had a timely appeal. The collapse of the communist economies was greeted in some quarters, as Lasch in 1962 suggested it would be, as evidence of the inevitable global tri¬umph of liberalism—the theoretically predicted “end of history,” in the catchphrase made popular by Francis Fukuyama. And on these matters, as Lasch quite rightly pointed out, there is no longer an appreciable difference in mainstream American political thought between “liberals” and “conservatives.” The “New Right,” in this re¬spect, proved a sham: Ronald Reagan was no less a worshiper of progress—no less an optimist, a nostalgist, a global crusader for the American way—than any classic liberal one might name.
Much of the attention Lasch’s book received when it appeared was therefore preoccupied with its attack on the “progressive” worldview; and the general terms that define the substitute world¬view the book proposed are plainly attractive. Who would want to defend “optimism” against “hope,” “nostalgia” against “memory,” “self-interest” against “virtue”? So long as the discussion remains at this level of abstraction, there is very little to argue. But Lasch had a broader purpose: he had undertaken to reconstruct a political and moral tradition in which his “alternative” values are rooted. This tra¬dition he called “populism,” and it is not possible to engage his argu¬ment in a serious way without confronting the challenges that this tradition makes (or that Lasch understood it to make) to modern liberal assumptions.

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