Christopher Lasch and Finding Our Limits

The True and Only Heaven is Christopher Lasch at his best. Master of the run-on sentence, Lasch crams an obscene amount of history into one voluminous work unified by its reverent examination of those who questioned the dogma of progress. It’s quasi-sequential but not really, flowing beautifully through figures largely forgotten and/or misremembered. Lasch’s brilliance constantly shines through. He finds the little-known works, the buried ideas espoused by great thinkers (from Georges Sorel on the left to Martin Luther King Jr. to Thomas Carlyle on the right), and merges them with surprising continuity.

Across 500+ pages, Lasch conveys that the petit-bourgeois ethic of proprietorship, acceptance of limits, respect for the particular over the universal, and appreciation for virtue is worthy of our focus. However, he decries the dominance of blind faith in progress. Guided by the rejection of limits, this progressivism claims that we can tame the natural world and human nature itself (446). It’s clear to me that innovation has been positive, but instead of humility in the face of what we don’t know, we erroneously view advances towards human control as the rule.

For the progressive — Marxist or modernization theory capitalist, conditions improve automatically, guided by a historical motion (160). Problematically, this flattens history, removing peoples’ sense of agency. Instead of providing the mythology for action, it breeds passivity. History was built by heroic figures but also forged in tragedy and failure, not simplistic accumulation. This more realistic approach would be healthier. Note here that Lasch’s vision of progress (and the one I adopt in this article) differ from the positively correlated term thrown around the media.

Instead, unfettered faith in progress leads to nostalgia and its idealization of a static past. Nostalgia then becomes both a tool of those who uphold an over-simplified version of the past (MAGA?) and a weapon for progressives to tar skeptics (113, 115). There is no one flat history, Lasch argues. Like him, I’m fascinated by the losers, the underrated heroes, the ‘average’ people. I find companionship with those who seek a more fulfilling history than the nostalgic or progressive reading. Relatedly, progress breeds pessimism when those blinded by progress confront the real evils that exist (170). Lasch prefers the approach of those like Martin Luther King Jr. who had hope in overarching justice without falling into the destabilizing fluctuation between optimism and pessimism.

And yet it seems like everybody from your run-of-the-mill Democratic/Republican politician to your fringe accelerationist operates in a paradigm of progress. Optimism (or pessimism) divorced from a humble sense of limits defines our time (47). However, a faulty sense of control, which I admittedly often fall victim to in my own politics, gives way to hubris. Thus, the culture of narcissism that Lasch decried years before rears its head where individualism crosses paths with progress. In our time, we’re taught to question why limits even exist on the self. For Lasch, this self-seeking worldview emerges from the predominance of acquisitiveness (516). But this is not a healthy way to view the world. Adrian Pabst, in his stellar book The Demons of Liberal Democracy, mentions how self-obsession and technological determinism combine to blur the boundaries that make relationships of affection and care possible. (Demons 156).

Pursuing a progressive mindset, 20th-century elites left and right attempted to smother populist values. Even those on the left refocused on consumers over producers, betraying the populist spirit of syndicalists, guild socialists, and Greenbackers. The implications of this shift towards consumerism and rising wealth resonate throughout the economy. Matt Stoller expresses regret about the left’s shift as it relates to antitrust. Through the embrace of the Chicago School’s focus on consumer prices, enforcers stopped thinking about the ancillary impacts of monopolization past “consumer benefit”. This goes hand in hand with increasing financialization and reflects a quest for universal abundance instead of a deep concern about proprietorship, as Lasch would prefer. It’s little wonder that commodification has infected every aspect of life. In light of this trend, Maurice Glasman once wrote that “unconstrained financial capital does not lead to efficiency or growth but severed from practices that tie it to relationships and place generates a volatile nihilism that leads us to where we are: isolated, powerless and disappointed, abandoned without vocation and value” (Blue Labour 23). In turn, Lasch notes that this quest for immediate gratification “relentlessly wore away the moral foundations of family life” (63). More than others, Lasch cogently, forcefully critiques capitalism. He does so from a curious angle more left-conservative than liberal. This perspective gives Lasch some of the best insights into what’s gone wrong in politics and simultaneously renders him an outsider. Despite this book being over 30 years old, much of it sounds familiar.

Applications for Our Politics

More recently, Lasch notes, the left in politics began to ignore populists’ values, to their peril (525). Since Lasch wrote his book, it’s become all the more apparent. Jim Webb is a model perhaps better than Sanders or Warren for what a Laschian left-populism could look like. His Scotch-Irish populist outlook also exemplifies how social conservatism and working-class cultural conservatism are not the same. He’s a card-carrying union member, pro-choice on abortion, supports gay marriage, wants to scale back overseas military commitments, and stated “the power of the government ends at my front door unless there is a compelling reason to come inside”. Yet he’s unabashedly patriotic, economically nationalist, strongly supports the 2nd Amendment, and favors shifting affirmative action to more need-based systems. Reflecting the producerist ethic Lasch endorses, Webb is “at once revolutionary and deeply conservative” (205). His 2016 campaign ended before a single primary, and the party evidently didn’t heed his advice that “the people who would most benefit [from Democratic policies] feel alienated”. This ignorance resulted in, as Lasch himself interestingly foretold, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the shift of so many working-class communities towards the GOP. The Voter Study Group, one of the most prominent post-2016 studies, displayed a huge and often-ignored category of voters called populists; socially conservative and economically left-leaning. Hillary Clinton lost major ground here vis a vis Obama in 2012, with just 6/10 Obama-voting populists casting a ballot for her in 2016. Importantly, the study showed that lower-income GOPers support tax increases for the rich, minimum wage increases, and reducing income differences (albeit still only 16%) at double the frequency that wealthier GOP voters do. This, my friends, is a realignment in action, a realignment the left could challenge if it listened to Lasch and his sometimes unlikely exponents.

Christopher Lasch taught courses at the University of Rochester for years.

Those of us left of center should consider Lasch’s analysis of G.D.H. Cole as somebody who knew that “socialism would have to rest on a respect for particular cultural traditions” (319). This insight, reflected in smaller groups like Blue Labour in the UK, has been forgotten. Instead, a class of progressives who express contempt for mass politics came to dominate the modern left (426). Religion, patriotism, and voluntary institutions are consigned to the dustbin of traditionalism. Individualism rules the day, which consequently erodes the bases for community strength. Tragically, these corroding bases made the Southern civil rights movement successful according to Lasch (394–399). This becomes evident in today’s ‘woke capitalism’, which places the onus of change on the individual without pushing for genuine structural change. Companies like Trader Joe’s pat themselves on the back for changing their (admittedly naff) food labels. Goldman Sachs, recently fined $9 million for racial pay discrimination, asserted their commitment to Black Lives Matter. It’s crucial for all facets of society to affirm the dignity of Black life, too often ignored and oppressed in this country. And Goldman, for what it’s worth, put $10 million aside into a fund for racial equity. Yet there’s no concordant endorsement of sweeping anti-poverty plans that target racial wealth gaps or even a universal basic income as championed by Martin Luther King Jr. There’s little acknowledgment of issues like food sovereignty or sweeping zoning reform. Elite institutions do not focus on a real egalitarian mass politics, guided instead by an ideology of progress divorced from the recognition that justice demands virtue, not corporatized determinism.

Cancel culture is yet another striking example of Lasch’s analysis come to life. Matt Taibbi deplores it as “constructing an impenetrable vocabulary of oppression and seething at the lumpen proles who either don’t get it or don’t like it.” Cancel culture, therefore, mimics the standard of enlightenment “that only members of a self-constructed cultural vanguard could consistently meet” (453). It isn’t novel, but a reflection of Douthat’s idea that “all cultures cancel”; what changes is who gets canceled and how frequently it happens. People with very prejudiced views and those who advocate actual violence deserve strident criticism and nobody should be insulated from criticism. But the problem of cancel culture arises when we jump to ostracize and obliterate the lives of non-extremists that we simply disagree with. Yascha Mounk puts it well, writing that “people should not be punished for accusations against them that are unsubstantiated, for actions that are perfectly reasonable, or for offenses that were committed by others.” Outside the academic bubble, people agree. 46% of Americans believe that cancel culture has gone too far, while about 25% haven’t heard of it. Easier today due to the internet, Lasch caught wind of this trend far earlier. Lasch criticizes Richard Hofstadter for seeing “every departure from orthodox liberalism as an expression of a paranoid style”, presaging the moral panic around old tweets, heterodox views, and even who a journalist interviews (456). Perhaps today’s reactions reflect a broadening of the ‘enlightened’ elite seeking to shut down discordant views. This retains, like the progressivism of Hofstadter and others, a sort of classist disdain. Phoebe Maltz Bovy wrote in the Washington Post that the “people who are (or feel) one misstep away from loss of livelihood aren’t about to speak their minds for the heck of it, even if presented with an opportunity to by a journalist asking to interview them. Or by a group putting together an open letter.” The weaponization of cancellation becomes a roadblock to working-class coaliton-building, especially when cancellation is more destructive against the rising middle class than against celebrities. Therefore, it represents some of the same divides Lasch deplores, in which proponents of progress tar their opponents as backward while allowing structures of economic inequality to go unchallenged.

This attitude means that a largely left-leaning ‘clerisy’ represented by educational institutions, media, and politicians upholds what Joel Kotkin calls a “neo-feudal” society marked by division and polarization. Potential challengers to this hierarchy are demonized for views representing “cultural lag” as Lasch describes or more recently told that their discordant speech equates to violence. A politics of individualistic self-righteousness forces some challengers to flip sides and lose their broad appeal; Bernie Sanders went from an unapologetically class-first approach in 2016 to a far more socially-leftward oriented one in 2020, which may have (as I noted and others) cost him electability points.

Indeed, Lasch describes how through history elites often held the greatest faith in unencumbered, globally-transcendent progress. I don’t mean to be a pessimist — huge gains in literacy rates, the eradication of smallpox, and so many other advances deserve to be lauded. But these great accomplishments resulted more from collective efforts than from historical determinism, efforts interspersed with tragedy. Evaluating where the progressive paradigm has gone too far doesn’t negate massive improvements, but simply acknowledges that nothing is inevitable. Furthermore, change has not been hunky-dory for everyone. Just glance between our shores. Globalization filtered through an unequal system conferred innumerable benefits on the well-off. But the rest of America suffered. Chinese imports especially displaced workers in less-educated, majority White parts of the country and cost 3.4 million jobs between 2001 and 2015, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The overall outsourcing of manufacturing jobs hit African-American males the hardest, exacerbating extant inequalities. It doesn’t take a protectionist to recognize the importance of as Samuel Hammond puts it, “re-grounding economics in history … [to] reconstruct an economic agenda that begins with markets as embedded in, and mediated by, our shared institutions.” Globalization is guided by government and firm decisions, representing the agency that progressive economic determinists ignore. As applied today, Lasch’s notion of progress worships the liberal Marketocracy without accounting for the mediating structures that enable positive growth for all. Revitalizing these structures should be the core of any forward-looking economic project.

Instead of boundless optimistic-openness, Lasch defends values held by the lower-middle classes, precisely the group struck by the China shock and rising deaths of despair. With respect for the particular and a sense of responsibility, Lasch draws on Sorel and Niebuhr to note how a sense of justice inspired by a shared belief can spur people into action and prevent them from losing hope (370). It’s not about rejecting change, which is a necessary corrective to injustice, but about incorporating a powerful sense of tradition and community into our aspirations. Extending Lasch’s reasoning, the culturally conservative values of the working class + a questioning of extant power structures would jeopardize the broken status quo. Few politicians openly stand for these views because according to Michael Lind, the managerial overclass’ political spectrum controls the debate, while the working class’ decidedly different views are shut out by enfeebled democratic institutions (The New Class War 47, 72). Somebody like former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris presents a good example — his 1972 and 1976 campaigns, radical in taking on concentrated power and prejudice but rooted in a middle American conservative disposition, truly challenging elites, were unable to gain monetary traction and media attention.

Therefore instead, due to the left’s aforementioned failure, the right cynically built up and attacked a nebulous new class. The new class, effectively a synonym for liberalism, allowed the right to attack elites without challenging big business (512). Indeed, this has been the Fox News playbook for years. Hosts like Lou Dobbs and now Swanson heir Tucker Carlson often indulge in the language of the New Class. More uncouth than Irving Kristol, certainly, but the ideological trend continues. In his 1996 work Up From Conservatism, Michael Lind showcased another negative effect of the new class theory as misinterpreted by the right — it fuels the Evangelical hard right’s quasi-apocalyptic, Manichean viewpoint (Up From Conservatism 150). This stirs up backlash that weakens the left. Kathy Cramer’s study of Wisconsin politics uncovers a rural resentment against public teachers, union officials, professors, and other groups that the right has cynically melded into the New Class. Politicians like notorious union-buster Scott Walker adopted cynical populist frames of makers and takers, only to corrode the rights of workers, teachers, and other groups. Thus, the left’s antipathy towards working-class cultural conservatism emboldens right-wing crusades while deflecting criticism of concentrated economic power.

So instead of commanding a multiracial populist working-class coalition, Democrats remain moored to a left-modernist leadership in the mold of deterministic progressives. Even the heavily working-class Democratic base communities of Latino and African-American voters appear less willing to stick with the Democratic Party (in the longer term) than they used to. Simultaneously, the fusionist right sells a pseudo-populism to White working-class voters alongside a Trumped-up caricature of petty-bourgeois values. The left should promote its own voices that mind the gap, but as of yet, even populist heralds in Washington like Senator Josh Hawley advocate for anti-worker policies. This might buy the Democrats some time, but they must move past being wedded to a notion of progress antithetical to tradition.

You might not read it in the New York Times, but some are beginning to recognize this viewpoint. Professor B. Duncan Moench echoed many of Lasch’s points in a fantastic Tablet essay titled “A Producerist Manifesto”. Isaac Wilks in Palladium asserts an action-driven vision to build institutions. Outlets like American Compass and UnHerd question the progressive liberal paradigm, blurring the traditional lines of left and right and sustaining true ideological diversity. No matter what party you’re in, The True and Only Heaven should convince you to pay attention to these questioning voices.

Lessons for Us All?

Beyond the political, this book has something for everybody. Lasch ends with a call for us to free ourselves by recognizing limits and renouncing resentment. By doing so, we can achieve the hope he professes and in turn abandon dueling optimism and pessimism. Recognizing limits will mean acknowledging the merit in lower-middle-class values while rejecting unabashed planet-destroying consumerism.

Under the crushing weight of our news cycle, it’s more important than ever to take heed Lasch’s calls. You don’t have to agree with everything he says or every figure he profiles to take important lessons from “The True and Only Heaven”. Together we can “assert the goodness of life in the face of its limits” (530). Especially now, we can find communion in close friends and family, which will help us love others (165) because “man grasps the universal only through the particular” (194). Our anxieties in this time of crisis give us a chance to envision concerns beyond abundance, like how to rebuild community (328). Especially in light of our reckoning with persistent racial injustice, we must keep in mind the “spiritual discipline against resentment” that Lasch saw in both Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr. (378). John Lewis, who passed away earlier this week, rejected resentment in favor of an enduring patriotism, embracing action over optimism. We can’t afford to forget his heroics.

In closing, COVID-19 displays just how maligned our sense of control is. No matter how far we think we’ve come, our societies have been brought to their knees by a microscopic non-living organism. Stuck in the fear of getting ill or losing family, the current situation pushes us to accept the limitations of our existence. If Lasch is right, only this acceptance will free us from the despair that accompanies a blow to the ostensibly inexorable march of progress.