Christopher Lasch’s Quarrel with Liberalism 6

Lower-middle-class virtues persist, Lasch thought, but as an en¬dangered moral species, preyed upon by the social-engineering schemes of the liberal professional classes. The controversy be¬tween suburban liberals and working-class city residents over the busing of school children to achieve racial integration and the argu¬ment over abortion rights are, he suggested, recent instances of lib¬eral imperialism. In the Boston busing wars, and in the struggles for open housing in the suburbs of Chicago, lower-middle-class white communities were reviled, and even demonized, by liberals; yet their “only crime,” Lasch said, “so far as anyone could see, was their sense of ethnic solidarity.” The populist solution, apparently, would have entailed an attempt to transform the inner city into a “real community,” rather than to compel people to ignore their eth¬nic and racial differences—though Lasch was vague about how this transformation would take place.
In the case of abortion rights, one might imagine that pro-choice advocates, because of their insistence that the decision to have an abortion should be left to the individual woman rather than fore¬closed by the state, would have had the stronger case for Lasch. But Lasch regarded the procedure of abortion itself as an instance of technological intrusion into the natural process of reproduction, and he accused the proponents of abortion rights of advocating so¬cial engineering—of trying to use medical advances to eliminate the “unwanted” in the name of social improvement. (This view of the pro-choice mentality derives mainly from a single sociological study, Kristin Luker’s Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood [1984].) And yet in these cases there is at least some engagement between the classes. In general, Lasch thought, “neither left- nor right-wing in¬tellectuals . . . seem to have much interest in the rest of American society.” A revived populist tradition, he concluded, would challenge the ideologues of progress, and help to answer “the great question of twentieth-century politics”: how we are to restore a spirit of civic virtue in our lives.
This does not mean that Lasch was proposing a resurrection of the populist political and economic program (though his lengthy and often quarrelsome elaboration of that program sometimes made it appear otherwise). As he conceded, much of populist economic theory—with its hatred of creditors and landlords, its monetary gimmicks and paper money schemes, its call for a return to small- scale production—was anachronistic even in the nineteenth cen¬tury. Many populist political convictions are similarly outdated: the belief that armed conflict breeds virtue in the citizenry, for example, surely died in the Battle of the Somme. Lasch was not suggesting that all the facts of modern history could be repealed, or that some¬day we might all become yeoman farmers, with our ancestral rifles hanging over the fireplace—though he would perhaps have liked us to think more respectfully of yeoman farmers.
The real argument of his book was a more philosophical one, having to do with the juxtaposition of populist economic theory, such as it is, with the tradition of moral criticism Lasch found in Edwards, Emerson, Carlyle, James, Niebuhr, and others. His point seemed to be that we need a political economy that matches the moral economy (as Lasch believed those writers understood it) of the universe. The universe, in this conception, is a place in which we earn our way, and do so in part by recognizing that there are lim¬its to how far we can go and forces militating against us which we cannot control. Character is built by striving to perform the role fate has assigned us, and a society that recognized this truth would be one which understood that conditions a modern person finds op¬pressive—obedience to family discipline, acceptance of the re-strictions of place and class, military conscription, demeaning or unremunerative work—are really the conditions that make a full and independent life possible. The reason populists give for agitat¬ing against capitalists, creditors, and landlords is that those are classes of people who profit without producing. In doing so, they violate the principles of an economics based on a labor theory of value—the foundation of not only populist and Marxist but even liberal economic theory in the nineteenth century. More than that, though, they violate the universe’s moral principle of just compen¬sation. You must give something to get something back. Only if we are producers will we deserve to donsume. And to be a “producer” in the larger, moral sense means to feel oneself responsible for all of what one does in one’s life.
This is not an unattractive philosophical conception. But what happens when it touches ground in the thought and practice of a particular “populist” writer? Consider the case of Georges Sorel, whose militant version of socialist syndicalism appealed to Lasch because of its rejection of both liberal and Marxist utopianism. Among the less attractive features of Sorel’s thought, Lasch noted in passing, is “probably” anti-Semitism. But a man who compared France’s struggle against the Jews to America’s against the “Yellow Peril,” who wrote that “the French should defend their state, their customs, and their ideas against the Jewish invaders” and that “the so-called excesses of the Bolsheviks were due to the Jewish ele¬ments that had penetrated the movement,” and who referred, in two of the works Lasch cited, Reflections on Violence and The Illu¬sion of Progress, to “big Jew bankers,” is not just “probably” an anti- Semite. Nor was Sorel’s anti-Semitism simply a detachable element of his general outlook. It was the obvious, if not the in¬evitable, consequence of an economic theory that demonized finan¬ciers and creditors.
And this side of populist thought is of a paranoid piece through¬out: the dislike of professional armies, as an instance of specializa¬tion that deprives citizens of the virtue-making activity of war; the dislike of those who lend the state the money to pay its armies, and who therefore supposedly find it in their interest to foment war be¬tween states; the defense of local religious and ethnic communi¬ties—these are all classic sources of anti-Semitism. They are also among the sources of fascism, particularly in France. “The intellec¬tual father of fascism,” one French admirer called Sorel in the 1920s; and although Lasch noted Sorel’s close association with the Action Francaise and his enthusiastically reciprocated admiration for Mussolini (later complemented by an equally fervent admiration for Lenin), he did not explain why this aspect of Sorel’s thought, of which he plainly did not approve, should be regarded as irrelevant to the aspects he had praised. And the same is true of the racism, jingoism, and demagoguery associated with populist political move¬ments generally: Lasch acknowledged these tendencies, but asked his readers to ignore them—occasionally by the discreditable tactic of throwing their suspicions back in their faces. He addressed the question of Sorel’s connections to fascism, for instance, simply by remarking that “liberals’ obsession with fascism . . . leads them to see ‘fascist tendencies’ or ‘proto-fascism’ in all opinions unsympa¬thetic to liberalism.” This may or may not be true, but it is not an argument.

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