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What Christopher Lasch got wrong Nostalgia is no cure for populism

This is not a utopia (GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

This is not a utopia (GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)


November 2, 2022   5 mins

Christopher Lasch’s posthumous comeback began around the same time Donald Trump was elected. In the years since, his inter-connected critiques of contemporary humanity’s narcissism and our globalised elite have turned him into a prophet of the populist Right’s anti-elite politics. But this newfound popularity of Lasch, nearly 30 years after his death, obscured both problems with and hidden resources within his work.

In the 1990 reissue of The Culture of Narcissism, he called on Americans to rediscover the tradition of “populism”. Based on values of “competence”, “discipline” and “work ethic”, the populist tradition in America was associated with aspirations of economic self-sufficiency and social stability. It had often found expression in apparently backward-looking political movements aimed at protecting small farmers and artisans from the encroachments of industrial capitalism.

Lasch’s defence of populism, however, contradicted key aspects of his analysis of postwar American society. He recognised, for instance, that the vanishing worldview of Middle America was primarily an ideology by which elites of the 19th and early 20th centuries manipulated the masses. Instilling in ordinary people a love of work and aspirations to property ownership was not necessarily in their interests, but it did reflect the needs of the American economy at the time. By the mid-20th century, as the US transformed into a consumer society, elite ideology shifted towards an emphasis on “authenticity” and an obsession with self-image. Lasch understood this, but nevertheless insisted that the ideology of the “old order” would be indispensable in escaping the present. This amounted to the sort of “Ghost Dance” mode of resistance Kurt Vonnegut parodied in his early novel Cat’s Cradle — the elevation of nostalgic pieties into a political programme.

Lasch’s sympathy for populism also conflicted with his psychoanalytic perspective. He emphasised in The Culture of Narcissism that our capacity for rational collective action — that is, for decent politics — is being degraded by our increasingly thin and inward-looking sense of selfhood. We have withdrawn from associational life (political parties, unions, clubs, churches) and immersed ourselves in short-lived, increasingly virtual pseudo-relationships. And so we are less and less able to see the public sphere as an area for substantive debate and action toward common ends, rather than as a stage for narcissistic self-expression.

We are, in turn, enthralled by a new kind of elite who rule us through their celebrity. We have replaced the traditional patron-client structure of politics (we follow elites because they advance our material interests) with a kind of cheerleading (or simping) for figures who represent our “values” in a political theatre. Our populist politicians, from Donald Trump to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and their supporters exemplify this narcissistic new politics.

It is, in a sense, both too late and too soon for populism as Lasch envisioned it. Populism was the expression of an economic order that no longer exists. Nor can we revive or replace it until we have escaped our infatuation with the self. What we need, to escape this vicious cycle, is a politics that makes us capable of politics.

In 1984, Lasch wrote a sequel to The Culture of Narcissism, The Minimal Self, which remains relatively neglected. In it, Lasch explored this paradox. He points beyond the shallow populism with which he is sometimes identified, and towards a politics aimed at the restitution of our psychological integrity. Arguing that the division of the political field along a Left-Right axis was outmoded, he tried to replace it with a new typology organised around different approaches to what he called the “politics of the psyche”.

Lasch saw three camps in this emerging psychopolitical spectrum: the “party of the superego”, “the party of the ego”, and the “party of Narcissus”. The emblematic figure of the first was Philip Rieff, who, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1967), had articulated a powerful critique of our norm-less and atomised society. His 1973 follow-up Fellow Teachers, unjustly overlooked today, was a powerful defence of the Freudian superego — the part of the psyche that enforces personal moral responsibility and respect for the “inhibitions” that make culture possible. In a rather cruel mischaracterisation, Lasch portrayed Rieff as a cultural conservative whose morality was based on conformism and “fear”, rather than a properly individuated awareness of one’s obligation to help others.

The “party of the ego”, by contrast, sought to empower individuals to survive in a competitive, isolating society by bolstering their capacity for self-interested competition. The watchword of its adherents — mainly members of the psychoanalytic tradition of “ego psychology” that dominated the United States in the decades following the Second World War — was “adjustment”. This tradition can be seen as the predecessor of the therapeutic movements of today, aimed at helping patients avoid emotional dependence on others, anxiety over the future, guilt over the past, and other barriers to being dynamic, “well-adjusted” economic agents.

The trouble with this advice, as Lasch notes, is not so much that it is ineffective as that it reinforces the social dynamics that create our psychological problems in the first place. Whether framed in more feminine and pseudo-progressive terms as “self-care” or in more masculine and Social-Darwinian terms as “grindset”, the “party of the ego” invites us to become more of what we already are: self-absorbed competitors who imagine that we must overcome our last shreds of decency to achieve happiness.

Lasch had the most sympathy for what he called the “party of Narcissus”, which may seem ironic, given his critique of narcissism. This group emerged out of the New Left of the Sixties, and particularly its radical feminist and ecological strands. It saw the basic problem of contemporary psychology not as a deficit of moral authority or the vulnerability of the ego, but as the alienation of the self from others and the world, driven in large part by our reliance on technology.

This rhymed with Lasch’s own critique of the 20th century as an era in which the technological domination of nature was now redounding on humanity itself — which had become, in the hands of doctors, psychiatrists, marketers and bureaucrats, a manipulable object. Through the critique of technology — and what, in the jargon of that period, was sometimes called the “technostructure” of government by unelected experts — the party of Narcissus, like Lasch himself, expressed its hopes for a new, more humane form of society oriented towards harmony rather than progress.

It is perhaps on the political Right that such ideas are most forcefully expressed today. Lasch emphasised that his new typology superseded the political binary, but fantasies of simple agrarian living, unprocessed food, and escape from modern technology now strike many as “conservative”. But whether its politics are coded as “Left” or “Right”, Lasch warned that the “party of Narcissus” aims at an impossible ideal. Seduced by the image of a self free from the contradictions of post-modernity, it is drawn into a retrograde fantasy politics.

What we need, Lasch insisted in the conclusion to Minimal Self, is not a doubling down on outmoded moral strictures, nor the shoring up of our brittle, anxious egos — nor, for all its desirability, the pursuit of a self wholly integrated in a post-technological society at peace with nature. Rather, we need to develop the psychic strength to bear the tensions of post-modernity: the searing gap between what we desire and what we can accomplish at present. The kind of person capable of political action in this environment is someone who can endure, without illusion, the growing desert — and looks beyond superannuated political identities for friends with whom he might find a way out.

The education of such individuals was in fact Rieff’s own project, as articulated in Fellow Teachers. It remains the task of some critical theorists on the Left, such as Benjamin Fong, who calls in his Death and Mastery (2016) for a pedagogical “politics that makes politics possible”. If we look past the dead-end of populism, we can see the road Lasch did not follow after Minimal Self — the search for a new kind of meta-politics aimed at the restoration of the psychological resources necessary for normal life. That search, one presumes, will bring us into company with strange fellow travellers and teachers.


Blake Smith is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago. A historian of modern France, he is also a translator of contemporary francophone fiction and a regular contributor to Tablet.

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Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

I read through some of this, quite a bit – and one great question kept coming up, again and again…..

‘Has this writer ever had an actual job where he did actual work?

I am a tradesman, I do hard construction – late 60s and I still can haul shingles up the roof and nail them down… The view from up there is so very different from this guys……. I do not think his ilk can see past the walls they live between and see the real world…….

An Academic or a Politician….. they usually never have actually worked, had a job – but they know how we should live, how we do live, what is best for us, and what we think, and should think.

I can not use Walmart self checkout if I have to look up the loose vegetables because the touch screens will not work for me – my hands are too hardened – I have to get the employee there to work the self checkout, I can stroke, hit, touch – fast, light – it can no more read my touch than it can a piece of wood – I bet this guy can get a touch screen to work like magic…..

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Yes, you build things by muscle for people with money. But … muscle and money, on their own, can never build anything of consequence … they need the drawings. Rich people commission brains (in your case called Architects) to think stuff up, assisted by their touch-screens, and then give the drawings to employ muscle. Academics and Politicians certainly have question marks, but don’t knock us soft-fingered Engineers!

Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

My husband has had a long career as a book cover illustrator, using traditional methods like pencils, oils, and acrylics along with digital tools. He has also remodeled several bathrooms, built a large brick patio, installed a folding ladder to the attic, and countless other “muscle” jobs. It’s a good idea to be capable of doing both. (I’d love to know if the author of this article completed his Lego Hogwarts castle all by himself).

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

We’re building several home additions at the moment. Yes, an architect is necessary, the drawings are necessary, but over the years we have observed how very limited they are as well. They don’t know how materials ‘go together’ or work, because they have never ‘crafted’. We have found them caught up in ideas and the design but often ignore the practicality (not to mention the budget). When to comes to appliances, they might have a ‘favorite’, usually based on the look, not the function, and they really can’t parse the new or any technology at all. It’s all about ‘the look’, the design. As for the builders & craftsmen – we are continually amazed by their years of acquired experience with their crafts & materials & site work. They are the ones that usually will say how things will work or not. Our property is built on ledge, so the foundation, the drilling to get the pipes below frost level, the duct work etc….we had to rely for all of that knowledge on the builders. The architects had absolutely no clue, no experience with how to really make it happen and how to change direction if need be. Architects & builders/craftsman need each other, but I remain in complete awe of the craftsmen.

Snapper AG
Snapper AG
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

You only “need” an architect because we’ve convinced ourselves we do. Buildings went up for thousands of years without architects, and many of them still stand. You could sketch out what you want in a house yourself, and any halfway decent contractor could build it.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  Snapper AG

I said “of consequence”. Craftsmen have been cobbling together shelters for thousands of years but they have all gone. From the pyramids to my local Cathedral, all that is left standing was Architect built. Study old maps of your area and then look around.

Aaron Argive
Aaron Argive
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

“Has this writer ever had an actual job where he did actual work?”
You didn’t realize whingeing is a real job, a real profession?
Unherd needs to up it’s game. Seems to be letting in these teat sucklers on quite a regular basis.

Hugh Bryant
HB
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

At least Lasch recognised the central problem: that western societies increasingly reserve their most lavish rewards for their least useful citizens whilst pauperising those who make things work.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

At first, on beginning this article, I was hopeful of it going somewhere. But then this;

“What we need, to escape this vicious cycle, is a politics that makes us capable of politics.”

And this:

“It is perhaps on the political Right that such ideas are most forcefully expressed today. Lasch emphasised that his new typology superseded the political binary, but fantasies of simple agrarian living, unprocessed food, and escape from modern technology now strike many as “conservative”.”
That may be conservative in the sense of supporting agrarian living, individualism, unprocessed food and technology, but it’s also a sentiment of the left. Can both the left and right be conservative? Are both sides after the same thing? Maybe, but for different reasons.
“the search for a new kind of meta-politics aimed at the restoration of the psychological resources necessary for normal life.”
But what’s “normal” life?
In the end, for me, nothing comes of this piece, which is a bit disappointing. I wanted something. But then again time and time again I read these opinion pieces and time and time again they seem to end it with “I don’t know”. Which is the real truth. Nothing’s working anymore. We’ve tried the same things over and over, in so many different ways, (economies, for example) and it’s shifting nothing.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Christopher Chantrill
CC
Christopher Chantrill
1 year ago

Who is this “we” Kemosabe?
Well, I will tell you. The “we” is the “Creatives,” to use my reductive Three Peoples theory. You could look it up.
And the article is all about the to-ings and fro-ings of the Creatives over the last decades. Bless their hearts.
But the Creatives have nothing to do with the populist emergence.
The populists are my “Responsibles,” ordinary people that just want to obey the law, go to work, and follow the rules. They are, in the opinion of the Creatives, a “benighted” Other that needs to be kept in check lest it spoil the creative experience of the Creatives.

Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Per my comment to Gordon, above: one can be both Creative and Responsible. I recommend it.

Alan B
Alan B
1 year ago

Was The True and Only Heaven never written?

Aaron Argive
Aaron Argive
1 year ago

This is the last of Blake Smith’s articles I will waste my time with.
Unherd – You need to clear out the whingers.

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
1 year ago

Interesting and keep them coming. Nice to know how others think.

Mr Blake is certainly the laptop Virtual type as explained in Mary Harrington’s recent article on that class wanting an amnesty from all the nonsense they ditched upon the rest of us during the recent pandemic.

Well. Where to begin? ‘We follow the elites because they advance our material interests.’ Is that right? For the Virtual tribe this makes sense. Then the author states ‘Lasch did not follow after Minimal Self (1984) ……. a new kind of meta-politics aimed at the restoration of the psychological resources necessary for normal life.’

Actually, he kinda did in his 1990 book (The Culture of Narcissism) which the author quotes and gleans that Lasch discredits the Narcissism’ he previously (1984) had the ‘greatest empathy’ for. Lasch is said to have called on America to rediscover populism (or should that be Nationalism?) based on competence, discipline and work ethic.

For Lasch there is no contradiction. In ‘The Nature of Narcissism’ as Lasch remains committed to America and the needs of the people, who he recognised as still having values more important than money.
It is the Deplorables the author is talking about without using that word. Lasch believed that aspects of the old order would be indispensable. So do many others.

So the contradiction from Lasch the auther speaks of arrives six years after The Minimal Self. It is proof that Lasch moved on. So should Mr Blake. Then it just gets weird.

Enough.

Last edited 1 year ago by Karl Juhnke
Steve Jolly
SJ
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

Populism isn’t based on or animated by some nostalgia for some imaginary ideal past, or agrarianism, or even libertarianism. It’s not animated by any ideology or political doctrine. It is a reactionary and deconstructive movement defined not so much by what it is, but by what it opposes. It is animated by anti-elitism, anti-globalism, anti-immigration, and a number of other anti-somethings. Like the Jacobins of the 1790’s, their goal is basically to destroy the current ruling class and dismantle the current structures of power that enable them to rule. It is more of a revolutionary movement than a political movement, and the nobility of our modern age are correct to fear it as such.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
Jeff Chambers
Jeff Chambers
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Indeed, only a revolution could displace the current transnational aristocracy.