If there is one intellectual who forecast our age of populism and polarisation, who identified before most the currents that have powered the rise of national populists, the fall of the left and the widening gulf that separates the people from the elites, then it is Christopher Lasch.
Born in 1932 in Omaha, Nebraska, the young Christopher ‘Kit’ Lasch had initially thought about following his working-class father into journalism. As a child, he was given a printing press, and alongside friends produced a newspaper for the local neighbourhood. In what was an early sign of the prolific writer to come – the man who produced classics like The Culture of Narcissism, The True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites – Lasch finished his first ‘book’ when he was aged just eleven.
His upbringing is important in making sense of his intellectual journey. Both of Lasch’s parents were Midwestern progressives who had been strongly influenced by the economic populism of the Progressive-era Democrats. His mother, he would later remark, was the more radical of the two. Both had raised their son amid conventional family life, something that he would later argue was under sustained assault.
His father, who had briefly entertained academic life after studying at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, instead went to work as a journalist for the World-Herald, a publication that had once been edited by Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan and was steeped in a tradition of populist-radicalism.
Unlike his father, Lasch entered the academy and stayed there. The future critic of elite progressive culture graduated from Harvard in 1954, where he acquired a strong distaste for unnecessary academic jargon – something that helps to explain his later ability to write bestsellers. His PhD was completed at Columbia, where he fell under the influence of Richard Hofstadter, America’s most prominent historian. Hofstadter’s 1948 book The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It lamented that Americans were under the spell of liberal capitalism, an idea Lasch would build on in his criticism of consumer culture.
Lasch is not easy to pin down politically. Though he began his intellectual journey on the radical left, having been influenced by English Marxists such as E.P. Thompson, over time he broke away and would become more strongly associated with cultural conservatism. His economic views put him firmly on the left, but his belief that capitalism was undermining stable connections, eroding family life, a sense of place and historical continuity, put him on the right – a formula that again pre-empted the ‘neither left nor right’ model of our time. His message that parents were no longer really parents, while children were subject to forces and influences that were outside of the family’s control and thus only served the capitalist model, was a precursor to our contemporary debates about social media and the iPad generation.
His first big book, The New Radicalism in America: The Intellectual as a Social Type (1965), documented the plight of secular progressive intellectuals who, he argued, had failed to fulfil their traditional role in society. It gave him what many academics fail to achieve – a name and notoriety. Combined with his staunch defence of the family, notably in Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (1977), his criticism of progressives gradually pushed him away from his old world full of left-wing intellectuals into a place where he found himself far more alone. Though many of his ideas resonated on the right, like his thesis that democratic society depends on close-knit families supported by a wider network, Lasch felt that many conservatives had become too obsessed with big business and the markets, and were intellectually bankrupt.
A contrarian by nature, he drew upon psychology, history and social criticism to explore and interrogate America’s national character. He was writing at a time when his country was navigating an era of profound change – the civil rights campaign, war in Vietnam, the ‘adversary culture’ and radicalism in universities, the polarising Nixon presidency, the rise of the self-help industry, Reaganism, a ‘New Right’ that was far more interested in markets than communities, and the rise of a ‘New Left’ that talked much about rights but little about responsibilities. Published in 1979, his bestseller The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations lamented the decline of religion, the retreat of people into ‘purely personal satisfactions’ and the growing obsession with personal ‘growth’ and self-help. It outlined his ideas around the right’s obsession with untrammelled markets, and the left’s relentless emphasis on progressivism, which he posited was weakening the family and community and undermining people’s character. Writing long before social media, reality television and the rise of a grievance-based, self-obsessed and performative ‘identity politics’, Lasch was writing things like: ‘To live for the moment is the prevailing passion – to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.’
Drawing on arguments in his earlier Haven in a Heartless World, he warned that elites were rushing to medicalise acts of will while minimising or downplaying the role of personal responsibility. His warning that people were becoming too dependent on technologies they did not understand, which fed feelings of powerlessness and victimisation, sits just as comfortably in today’s debates about Silicon Valley or what doctors now refer to as ‘PSU’ (Problematic Smartphone Usage). He wrote: ‘Relationships with others are notably fragile, goods are made to be used up and discarded; reality is experienced as an unstable environment of flickering images. Everything conspires to encourage escapist solutions to the psychological problems of dependence, separation, and individuation, and to discourage the moral realism that makes it possible for human beings to come to terms with existential constraints on their power and freedom’.
For Lasch, people were demanding too much of life and too little of themselves. The new consumption culture, supported by parties on the left and right, was undermining the family by stripping away the ability of parents to impose limits on their children’s freedom, and driving people’s desire for instant gratification. The rise of fame and celebrity, the ‘make it’ industry, the Trumpian obsession with ‘winners’ before it was known as Trumpian, all reflected how personal relationships were becoming increasingly shallow and transitory.
His work on narcissism was so compelling that it attracted an invitation to speak with President Jimmy Carter whose infamous (and much criticised) speech about a ‘malaise’ in American society drew on Lasch’s work, while also prompting Ronald Reagan to retort ‘I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people’. Lasch had been stunned to be invited to the dinner party, alongside the likes of Daniel Bell and Jesse Jackson. It was also problematic given that Lasch had devoted much of his early career to criticising academics who had traded objectivity for political influence (he also complained that Carter had misrepresented his ideas, spending more time berating the American people than the professional classes who were benefitting from the uneven distribution of power).
The Trump presidency was in many respects the culmination of all that Lasch had warned about. Lasch would have strongly opposed Trump but he would also have sympathised with the grievances driving his voters. His growing criticism of the inability of the left to connect with the working-class on cultural questions meant he would not have been surprised, at all, by the six in ten Labour districts that provided a majority vote for Brexit in the UK, or the weakening bond between blue-collar communities and the Democrats in the US. Many of his arguments find their expression today in the lingering influence of Red Toryism and Blue Labour. Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of Trump voters as ‘deplorables’, and the dismissal of Brexiteers as ‘Little Englanders’ were merely the latest manifestations of the elite disdain for blue-collar values that Lasch identified more than two decades earlier (indeed he wrote a blistering criticism of Clinton’s approach to the family).
The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994) was put together on his deathbed. Suffering a recurrence of cancer after seemingly successful surgery in 1992, Lasch refused chemotherapy so that he could keep writing and finish a book that had originally been intended as a major study of social class in America. More an edited volume of essays than stand-alone book, it nonetheless became a bestseller and remains a classic. Lasch identifies the main currents that decades after his death in 1994 would gain strength and drive the people-led backlash across North America and Europe. He warned of societies that had become dangerously divided between a populism that spoke to traditional blue-collar values and an elitist liberal faction that was consumed by anti-racism, obsessed with education credentials and had become culturally isolated from the rest of society.
Had he lived just a decade or so longer, he would have seen the fusion of reality television and politics, our continued self-absorption through social media, a mental health crisis among the young, ‘cancel culture’ and emotional safetyism among new generations of fragile and inward-looking millennials and zoomers, the continued retreat of distant elites into technocratic institutions, and the hollowing out of collective institutions that had once kept our ancestors focused on the common good, from the church to the family, from a broadly representative politics to trade unions. None of this would have surprised Lasch because he had already identified the underlying currents that had made all of it possible.
He would also have seen the continuing influence of his ideas over thinkers today. Read the likes of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, Samuel P. Huntington’s Who Are We?, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere and Michael Lind’s New Class War and the influence of Lasch is on full display and, I suspect, will remain so in the years ahead.