Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Family Under the Lasch

Salty Vicar points to an article in Policy Review reflecting on some of the writings of Christopher Lasch, most famous as the author of The Culture of Narcissism. I was not familiar with his work, but as it turns out it is accessible in small doses and reasonably available on the internet.

A convenient example is an article and some responses which originally appeared (in part) in Tikkun. The irst article, while titled as if it were an attack upon the right's view of the family, contains a pretty potent criticism of the left's expansion of the word into "non-traditional" territory. One Lillian Rubin responded specifically (and from a feminist posture) to that critique, prompting a further response from Lasch titled "Why the Left Has No Future". It is a blissful relief to read such discourse (even as much as I disagree with parts of it) after all the positional posturing which is the standard mode of argument in the blogosphere.

I tend to prefer his positions to those of Ms. Rubin in the exchange, if not always for exactly the same reasons. I am struck by his references to "capitalism" in his responses, and I think there is a certain weakness in his position in these references. For example, he says

Professionals, [Moynihan] observes, have a vested interest in discontent, because discontented people turn to professional devices for relief. But the same principle underlies modern capitalism in general, which continually tries to create new demands and new discontents that can be assuaged only by the consumption of commodities.
This is true, but it is looking at the wrong end of the transaction. Professionals become so through investment in education, and they need to make that investment pay off. Even if one eliminates the financial cost of education, the learning of a trade is going to lead someone to exercise it, if only as a matter of personal pride. And if these people didn't study to become therapists of some sort or another, what would they be doing? Lasch exhibits a certain nostalgia for the self-supporting homestead, but the reality is that civilization practically exists out of the creation of commerce to allow the household to rise above the treacherous life of subsistence agriculture or hunting. It's not so much capitalism as it is economy that produces the pressures which Lasch decries.

On the positive side, however, Lasch puts enough difference between himself and the economy to be able to make social criticism about how it is managed. In contrast, the existing left and right forces in politics manifestly lack that distance. The official right effectively denies that such criticism has any merit at all. This is a philosophy for the wealthy and privileged, and it's only made plausible to the masses (a) by their longing to become rich, and (b) because the official left wraps itself up in equally implausible social positions and is in reality also tied up in wealth and privilege.

There's a strangely Panglossian strain to both sides: everything in their subculture is the best of all possible worlds. And the same strain can be heard in Christianity. The last thing either side is willing to admit is that people do not espouse a consistent set of principles and then act accordingly. And yet that's the first thing one should conclude from the Judaeo-Christian recognition of the sinful state of mankind. Thus it's odd, in the middle of the current Anglican crisis, for someone who is a supporter of the leftist program of the church hierarchy to appeal to Lasch, who seems to me (particularly in the article I cited) to be a determined opponent of that program.

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