Book Review: Lasch’s Legacy

Unknown, Narcisse se mirant dans la fontaine (c. 1500)

As the intelligentsia, both liberal and conservative, grapples with the shipwreck that is the Trump administration, Christopher Lasch’s name has been floating up more and more often. Among those calling his work prescient – especially his late work on how populism and progressivism diverged in the twentieth century – are Jill Lepore of the New Yorker, blowhard Ross Douthat in The New York Times, as well as pundits in The American Conservative and The Federalist. Both Hillary Clinton and Steve Bannon cite him as a major influence. However, like a body washed up on the beach, Lasch’s thought has been bloated and distorted in these articles to the point of unrecognizability. Such misrepresentations have been countered by a more measured appraisal by Chris Lehmann in The Baffler, and so I won’t address them here. Rather, I’d like to reëvaluate the earlier work that catapulted him to fame, 1979’s The Culture of Narcissism. While it contains some elements that are useful to understanding Trump and hence timely, the main reason that it deserves renewed attention is that it poses questions about the links between economic relations, culture, and happiness that are largely unasked by today’s left.

Lasch’s central argument in The Culture of Narcissism turns upon a major assumption about child development, which is itself rooted in psychoanalytic thought. Citing the psychoanalytic theory of Otto Kernberg, Melanie Klein, and, naturally, Freud, Lasch notes that developing a healthy sense of self during childhood is largely a matter of coming to terms with the fact that one is not continuous with the world and so cannot fulfill one’s needs oneself. Overcoming the feelings of terror, rage, and helplessness this provokes requires contact with a present parent, whose mastery of the environment and simultaneous fallibility give the child a realistic image of the capacities and limits of an adult life in which one is neither omnipotent nor helpless. In other words, the self-image of the child is in part constructed as a reflection of their image of the parent. Because the esteem once afforded psychoanalysis by the public has largely diminished with the rise of empirical psychology, this premise may be hard to swallow for many readers. Nonetheless, engagement with the rest of Lasch’s thought demands acceptance of it, if only counterfactually.

Since, prior to the industrial revolution, the father was the primary breadwinner of the family and often conducted skill-based labor in close vicinity of the home where the child could observe him, the child’s need for a tempered picture of adulthood was satisfied. However, Lasch claims, the industrial revolution upset this domestic arrangement since it forced the father to work far from the child. Moreover, as the result of changes in modes of production, work became less about the exercise of transferrable skills than about the execution of a narrow role in the factory, and, later, more abstract but similarly narrow roles in the office. Drawing on the work of Stephen Marglin and Andrew Ure, Lasch notes that this expropriation of worker’s technical skills by management was in the interest of employers, since it gave management a monopoly on technical knowledge, thus forestalling the possibility of workers seeking control of the means of production for themselves. This change in labor relations also reverberated in the home, for it meant both that fathers no longer had concrete skills which they could demonstrate to their children to give them a realistic picture of adulthood.

According to Lasch, growing up with an absent father causes children to develop a fantasy of a father who is omnipotent yet capriciously punitive, embodying both their desire for total gratification and their rage at their dependence. Since images of the self are modeled after images of the parent, the result is narcissism. In extreme cases, this means narcissism in the psychoanalytic sense, which consists in “fantasies of omnipotence and a strong belief in [one’s] right to exploit others and be gratified.” However, because “pathology represents a heightened version of normality”, diluted versions of these traits are found in what Lasch calls the ‘narcissistic personality of our time’. Contrary to popular characterization, narcissism does not spring from an overabundance of self-love but from a lack of it. Thus, the narcissist’s wish to be “vastly admired, not for one’s accomplishments, but simply for oneself” arises from a need to compensate for a hollow sense of self. As Lasch notes, the narcissist becomes “facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it; unappeasably hungry for emotional experiences with which to fill an inner void; terrified of aging and death.” Each individual seeks affection and encomium from others but is loathe to “make too large an investment in love and friendship”, and as a result personal relations become brittle, vacuous, and calculative.

Lasch also attempts to connect the rise of narcissism with declines in the quality of education; changing conceptions of work and success; the marketing boom; the self-conscious irony of Woody Allen, Donald Barthelme, and others; casual sex; regressions in amateur and professional sports; the rise of self-help; the substitution of spectacle for politics. Part of what makes reading Lasch so frustrating (and the reason he lends himself to such divergent readings) is that these threads form less of a constellation than an archipelago, insofar as he doesn’t always elucidate the causal connections between them. At the same time, his discursions on these subjects are tied together by a common theme: we, the narcissists, in seeking to slake our inner emptiness, often only succeed in exacerbating its very conditions.

For Lasch, this self-defeating tendency is best exemplified by two impulses: that toward consumption and that toward self-fulfillment. Products advertised on TVs and billboards tantalize viewers with the hope of filling the void within, but these advertisements seek “to promote not so much self-indulgence as self-doubt […] to create needs, not to fulfill them.” Thus modern marketing leads individuals to accept “consumption as an alternative to protest or rebellion”, perpetuating itself by promising to allay the very alienation it inflames. Similarly, in Lasch’s view, the modern fetishizing of authenticity, self-actualization, and personal expression simultaneously conceals a sense of resignation at the social and political conditions beyond one’s control and a paradoxical effort to fabricate a sense of self through endless self-examination. Lasch sees the sixties new left as exemplifying this hollowing out of politics, explaining their gravitation toward a theatrical brand of revolutionary politics – smoke-ins, futile street battles, and occasional bombings – as motivated by a desire to form a self-identity. He writes, “these radicals had so few practical results to show for their sacrifices that we are driven to conclude that they embraced radical politics in the first place not because it promised practical results but because it served as a new mode of self-dramatization”.

As contemporary commentators have noted, elements of Lasch’s critique do feel prophetic, from his historical analysis of casual sex as arising from “protective shallowness” to his exorciation of individuals’ compulsive need to construct a sense of self and their desire for external validation, which sheds insight onto the massive popularity of social media. Moreover, The Culture of Narcissism does speak to the Trump era, with its description of the corporate ‘gamesman’, “who works with people rather than materials”, “seeks not to build an empire or accumulate wealth but to experience ‘the exhilaration of running his team and gaining victories’”, and whose “deepest fear is to be labeled a loser”. The goal of the corporate manager, Lasch writes, is not money or influence but “a reputation as a winner”, since “Power lies in the eye of the beholder and thus has no objective reference at all”. In reading this description, one can’t help but think of the President and the admirers who propelled him to power.

At times, Lasch’s critique of the way in which sources of authority conceal domination beneath a veneer of permissiveness – in the school, the workplace, and the juvenile court – mirrors Foucault’s analyses of the prison and the asylum. In other cases, his nostalgia for shared values of duty, self-sacrifice, and personal responsibility recalls the reactionary traditionalism of the neo-conservatives. But Lasch does not share Foucault’s belief that a neoliberal state might offer the individual greater autonomy, and he ridicules the neoconservatives for moralizing without realizing that the conditions they decry have their roots in the very system of capitalist production (industrial and corporate) which they idealize. It is because of his conviction that changing modes of production are causally related to the rise of narcissism that Lasch is equally critical of reformist projects such as the New Deal, which only “help[ed] to forestall more radical solutions” to the blights of capitalism.

We might say that the unasked concern which motivates Lasch’s project is Mary White Ovington’s dictum that socialism, if realized, would “not mean simply a full stomach […] but a full life.” Prima facie, Lasch appears to support Ovington’s claim, insofar as he unequivocally links contemporary economic relations to the hollowing out of everyday life. However, closer scrutiny shows him to be much more ambivalent, for the mere fact that capitalism gives rise to narcissism doesn’t mean that socialism couldn’t also do so – in other words, capitalism, in Lasch’s analysis, seems to be a sufficient condition for the proliferation of narcissism, but not a necessary one. After all, one can imagine a socialist society in which parents still work far from the home in largely abstract roles, unable to demonstrate to their children the concrete, material skills which Lasch sees as so essential to healthy psychic development, resulting in the perpetuation of narcissistic demands for adulation coupled with fears of emotional investment. These considerations reveal the anti-modern character of Lasch’s lament for the “homely comforts of love, work, and family life, which connect us to a world which is independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs.” Regardless of how one feels about Lasch’s suppositions about child development or his wistful traditionalism, it worth taking seriously his worry that socialism alone would not necessarily mean an end to modern alienation.