Opinion Christopher Lasch's French heir
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The work of historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch is generating new interest throughout the world. One of his most provocative interpreters is French philosopher Jean-Claude Michea, a “communitarian socialist” who argues that Lasch’s work shows how modern capitalism disintegrates the foundations of rational life. In his prefaces to the French translations of Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism and The Revolt of the Elites, Michea warns that only a new alliance that overcomes the divisions between Right and Left can save us from the illusions of progress.
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Lasch is often seen as a moralizing populist, a champion of common folk against meddlesome experts and bureaucrats. But he was, at heart, a cosmopolitan intellectual. His reviews of The Birth of the Clinic and The History of Sexuality introduced Michel Foucault to the American public, and he often found common ground with members of the European New Left. This was no accident: Both Lasch and his European interlocutors were interested in exposing the forms of domination hidden beneath neoliberalism’s promises of tolerance and freedom.
An admirer of both Karl Marx and George Orwell, Michea is one of the few contemporary thinkers continuing Lasch’s efforts to connect left-wing critical theory with right-wing populism. For Michea, Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites is a key text for understanding the pseudoethical values and political strategies of our planetary ruling class. These are the opposite of the values and strategies of the traditional bourgeoisie. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, capitalists needed a disciplined labor force, integrated national markets, and, in Europe, the support of other classes against the old aristocracy. Bourgeois intellectuals accordingly preached an ethic of hard work and delayed gratification and a political program of national democracy.
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Yet today’s elites no longer need democracy, patriotism, or the Protestant ethic as instruments of rule. They live in enclaves, protected by their wealth from the rising cost of living and the declining quality of public education, transportation, and security. Their fortunes, tied to flows of capital, seem unaffected by the immiseration of the working and middle classes or shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. They rule through a new religion of permanent rebellion against previously dominant values, flaunting their contempt for “popular virtues” such as patriotism, sexual modesty, and respect for traditional authority. The institutions built around these popular virtues and the people who still believe in them are imagined as vessels of misguided nostalgia or dangerous hatred. Elite ideology summons individuals to overcome prejudice, express themselves, and enjoy life. Instead of the stern discipline of kings and priests, we now have the apparent permissiveness of capitalists and pundits.
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But as Michea, summarizing Lasch, insists, people experience this permissiveness as a source of “chronic anxiety.” When elites began to champion “liberation,” they undermined the structures that gave working-class and middle-class people a material basis for building their lives. They attacked the moral consensus by which people had been able to claim solidarity with their neighbors and discipline their basest desires — desires that are now solicited at every turn by advertising, pornography, and social media. Lasch himself was particularly disturbed by the collapse of marriage among the working and lower classes, but Michea is more concerned with the “specific alienation” of our moment, in which individuals can only make political claims or respect themselves if they appear to be “on the margins.” The result is a paradoxical world in which our actual authorities encourage people to experience themselves as “continually living in transgression” against imagined authorities. This attitude, which equates restraint with repression, makes any enduring relationship psychologically intolerable. Unable to create stable and coherent lives, bewildered individuals nurse “narcissistic” fantasies, turning their self-image into another commodity competing for attention.
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For Lasch, as for Foucault, the great danger of the new elite ideology and the narcissistic personality it created was the power that it ceded to therapeutic “experts”: psychiatrists, human resource officers, sexual educators, etc. These experts step into the vacuum of traditional authority, extending their power into the most intimate areas of our lives. They tell us to see our problems as the result of lingering forces of reaction, such as sexual repression or racism, rather than the consequence of an economic system that saps the foundations of a coherent self. In their later writings, both Lasch and Foucault emphasized that a self is not a personality naturally given to us at birth; it is a character created through the work of a lifetime. Both came to think that what Foucault called “government of the self” is only possible if individuals, dissatisfied with who they are at present, can find resources in their culture for the discipline needed to remake themselves. Neoliberal culture, for all of its promises of unlimited freedom, actually makes us less free: Instead of channeling our anxieties into the disciplined practices and relationships that would allow us to achieve self-mastery, it diagnoses our dissatisfaction as a problem to be managed, indeed medicated, by experts.
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Writing a generation later, Michea insists that the problems identified by Lasch have become much worse. In his preface to the 2018 French re-edition of The Culture of Narcissism, he argues that experts and elites are red herrings: They make tempting targets for populists of the Left and the Right, but they are symptoms, not causes, of what ails us. The real problem is an economic system that is destroying the “indispensable ecological and cultural conditions” for individual and collective identity, and therefore for political action. People anxiously fascinated by spectacular self-images lack the capacity to organize around rational goals. Any group that does come to power will find that the circuits of global trade pose “obvious obstacles” to attempts at collective self-assertion.
What to do about this is unclear. We should be suspicious, Michea suggests, of conservative populists who attack immigrants and sexual minorities while promoting the interests of Big Business, just as we should be suspicious of left-wing populists and liberals whose calls for opening borders, relationships, and everything else advance the material interests of the plutocracy. Instead, Michea hopes for the emergence of a strange, capacious new alliance: one of left- and right-wing populists seeking to promote competing visions of the common good and liberals concerned with saving the possibility of individual autonomy, working together to maintain the conditions necessary for psychological stability.
Lasch’s work suggests that people facing precarious lives will turn for refuge to the shallow sociality of exchanging narcissistic fantasies rather than to class solidarity, national unity, or meaningful private lives. Perhaps those who value the latter three may be able to find a common cause by temporarily suspending disagreements about their relative worth. But, as Michea warns, time is running out.
Blake Smith is a Harper Schmidt fellow at the University of Chicago, where he works on cultural ties between France and India.
Original Author: Blake Smith
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