As Christopher Lasch was an unrepentant man of the left, it is to say the least doubtful that he would much relish being associated with Steve Bannon, the pugnacious and controversial former advisor to President Trump. Yet for good or ill the association is there, because some time ago the CEO of Breitbart identified Lasch’s final book The Revolt of the Elites and The Betrayal of Democracy as one of the driving inspirations behind today’s populist agenda. So just as we must look at Bannon if we are to make sense of the Trump movement, those trying to understand where Bannon is coming from must in turn make themselves at least a little familiar with the legacy of Lasch.
To begin with, it should be admitted that “man of the left” is a somewhat misleading expression vis-à-vis Lasch. More precisely he might be described as a “communitarian populist,” which means that he did concede a certain value to tradition and social norms as forces that hold communities and civilizations together. And although he often drew upon the thought of Marx, Dewey, and Freud, Lasch was also deeply hostile toward liberal academia, for the academics had in his estimation forgotten or even sold out the working class. If he was a leftist, then, he was a leftist who hated the leftist establishment even more than he hated the conservative one. Indeed, in books like The Culture of Narcissism and The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics Lasch condemned the stereotypical liberal’s prejudices against tradition and historical memory using expressions more evocative of Russell Kirk than of Hilary Clinton. “Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present,” Lasch writes. “Our culture’s indifference to the past—which easily shades over into active hostility and rejection—furnishes the most telling proof of that culture’s bankruptcy.”
Select passages from the essay “Why The Left Has No Future” make Lasch’s presence on Bannon’s reading list even easier to understand. In this biting and ruthless analysis of the contemporary intellectual climate, Lasch characterizes liberal writers as mere pseudo-radical posers. They are “full of moral outrage and theoretical hot air,” he reckons, and are doomed to failure because of their inability to comprehend “religion, pro-family attitudes, and [the] ethic of personal accountability.” Rather than address the social, cultural, and economic forces that have contributed to the decline of the family, the intelligentsia prefers to change the family’s definition, a course that in Lasch’s estimation seems a little like a doctor redefining health so as to cover up the fact that he is poisoning his patients.
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While “it would be foolish to blame feminism for the collapse of the family,” continues Lasch, “it would be equally foolish to pretend that feminism is compatible with the family.” Just like other proponents of liberation ideology, so his argument goes, feminists have in recent years done little more than reinforce the hegemony of anti-family, transnational corporations. Far from representing great triumphs for women, the normalization of two-income and single-mother households are instead proof that Main Street is subject to Wall Street.
Nor is Lasch much impressed by the Left’s supposedly bold and compassionate agenda for “helping children”:
A ‘family policy’ designed to shift [parental] responsibility to the state is no solution at all. Nor is it a ‘radical’ solution. It would merely ratify the pattern of bureaucratic individualism that already exists, in which the state takes over the nurturing functions formerly associated with parenthood and leaves people free to enjoy themselves as consumers. Such a solution makes children of us all.
Here it is obvious that Lasch was as much a sociologist and psychoanalyst as political philosopher. He was, in addition, a fervent partisan of human-scale democracy, which is why he especially opposed what he saw as the infantilization of America’s citizenry. (This infantilization process was epitomized, I might add, by the handing out of crayons and coloring books to college students immediately following the last presidential election.)
Last but certainly not least we must consider The Revolt of the Elites, a book that is in part a response to the Spanish conservative José Ortega y Gasset’s classic The Revolt of the Masses. Where Gasset saw the vulgar mob as the quintessential threat to civilization, Lasch sees the problem as lying with a rootless and hence irresponsible elite. According to Lasch, the new meritocracy has all the vanity and pride typical of the old aristocracy, yet none of its good points. Noblesse oblige has given way to cheap and easy virtue signaling.
“Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregate on the coasts,” he explains,
turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market of fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture. It is a question whether they think of themselves as Americans at all. Patriotism, certainly, does not rank very high in their hierarchy of virtues. “Multiculturalism,” on the other hand, suits them to perfection, conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic music, exotic tribal customs can be savored indiscriminately, with no questions asked and no commitments required. The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort.
This is, concludes Lasch, not a citizen’s but “a tourist’s view of the world.” And it is a colossal understatement to say he was not optimistic about the prospect of a world run by (and for) tourists. Whether he exactly predicted the Trump-Brexit backlash of 2016 may be debated, but there can be no question that he did call attention to the bourgeois-bohemian self-satisfaction and superficiality which provoked it. He is one of a handful of dissident American commentators who would, if alive today, be entitled to say “I told you so.”
Naturally no consideration of any modern thinker is complete unless it takes into account how he saw Christianity, and once again Lasch falls into a strange idiosyncratic category of his own. Certainly he was a voracious reader whose interests extended well beyond the Freudian-Marxian synthesis of the Frankfurt School, such that he came to appreciate Catholic thinkers like Orestes Brownson and Pope John Paul II. Faith, Lasch suspected, might be a remedy for that “Faustian view of technology” which perennially tempts the minds of his fellow progressives. Regrettably, however, Lasch’s intuitions about the Church’s social significance never lit in him an actual faith of his own, and in retrospect it looks as if democracy was the closest thing he had to a religion. On the one hand he never proclaimed a personal belief in God, just as on the other hand he never questioned the egalitarian suppositions underlying democratic theory.
Whatever its weaknesses, Lasch’s work points away from the collapsing liberal consensus, and suggests alternative ways of looking at politics, community, and society. Unaccountable financiers and arrogant technocrats have ushered in for us an age of cultural decadence, massive and uncontrolled demographic shifts, and a seemingly-unending series of uncontrollable revolutions in genetic engineering, robotics and psycho-pharmaceuticals. What we need in order to face the enormous spiritual challenges such changes entail is not this or that comprehensive ideology purporting to solve all our problems, nor mere reinforcement of the truths we already hold, but a variety of fresh and intellectually courageous perspectives. From this fact follows the real significance of Lasch—and, for that matter, of the combative Irish Catholic populist who touts his work.