In his best-known book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” historian and social critic Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) outlined an emergent personality and style that have since taken control of elite and mass political culture. Appalled by the exploding therapeutic sensibility that promised freedom, creativity, and mental health, he argued prophetically in 1979 that self-expression and radical individualism could yield disastrous social results.
Lasch was surveying “a way of life that is dying—the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.”
Twenty-five years later, in his collection of essays, “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy,” he discerned the “venomous hatred” of sophisticates toward yeoman America. But only since his death has their revulsion toward “clingers” and “deplorables” become relentless and undisguised. Furthermore, despite all its blessings, the internet has changed the game, as it enables self-absorption and retreat from nature in ways that we still barely understand.
The Sixties Brought Us A New Class Of Elites
The Sixties counterculture was not a proletarian or worker’s revolt, Lasch understood. The middle-class children of nation builders, patriots, and World War II fighters rejected “materialism” and cashiered bourgeois nationalism for the Magical Mystery Tour. By the end of the 20th century, they were steering institutions into a new regime. To these postwar elites, said Lasch, family values, mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, white racism, and retrograde views of homosexuals and women stood in the way of progress.
“Because it equates tradition with prejudice, the left finds itself increasingly unable to converse with ordinary people in their common language,” Lasch observed in 1987. “The question of the family,” he added, “which now divides our society so deeply that the opposing sides cannot even agree on a definition of the institution they are arguing about, illustrates and supports the contention that the left has lost touch with popular opinion.”
In matters of family and more, advertising and pop psychology had created the “modern delusion that people can keep all their options open all the time.” There was a basic conflict between family and feminism, Lasch contended.
In “The Revolt of the Elites,” Lasch argued that high-end liberals wanted to live in “a global bazaar” to be savored “with no questions asked and no commitments required.” Identities are post-national. “They send their children to private schools … and hire private security guards to protect themselves against the mounting violence against them.” Many have “removed themselves from the common life” and “ceased to think of themselves as Americans.”
Our Cultural Revolution and Its Consequences
Before the 2016 election, Harvard University historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore recommended Lasch’s volume to explain current events to distressed liberals, and for good reason. Abandoning the left’s original intent to protect the common man, Lasch had concluded more than 30 years earlier, post-Sixties liberals went in for diversity, secularism and cultural revolution, forsaking interest in ordinary Americans.
Distressed by the left’s changing social priorities, and concerned by their devaluation and denial of the past, Lasch previewed the emerging priorities with alarm. “Hedonism, self-expression, doing your own thing, dancing in the streets, drugs, and sex are a formula for political impotence and a new despotism, in which a highly educated elite through its mastery of a modern society rule over an indolent population that has traded self-government for self-expression,” he wrote in 1969. “Progressive rhetoric has the effect of concealing social crisis and moral breakdown by presenting them as the birth pangs of a new order,” he added later.
As did some other early critics of the Sixties, Lasch deviated from the prevailing countercultural critique of family, sex, sobriety, the work ethic, and other foundations of bourgeois order. He pointed to consumer capitalism’s voracious appetites and lure. “It is the logic of consumerism that undermines the values of loyalty and permanence and promotes a different set of values that is destructive of family life—and much else besides.” On one hand, progressives wanted to set rules of enlightened political thought, Lasch realized; collaterally and unwisely, in his estimation, they sought to “extend the range of personal choice where most people feel the need for solid moral guidelines.”
The Post-War Generation Redefined America’s Virtues
Since the Sixties, welfare rolls have multiplied, as have crime, out-of-wedlock births, broken families, dysfunctional schools, and low-level, widespread disorder and distrust. The unraveling of America’s cities has left dead zones in what were once political and cultural centers. Despite astonishing affluence and material ease, about one-eighth of Americans over the age of 15 are taking a prescribed anti-depressant. Others are reaching for whiskey, weed, meth, or opioids. Gender dysphoria is epidemic, even chic.
The Sixties threw families, schools, churches and other time-honored vessels of social stability aside to accommodate the individual. The impact is inescapably apparent today. Millions of Americans are retreating into a raunchy, mainstream world of celebrities, gladiatorial sports, pornography, video games, and social media. They are detached from the public sphere without guilt or shame or chastisement; they are civic zeroes enabled by the culture of narcissism and economic surplus.
Lasch and other social critics noticed that the postwar generation rising in cultural and educational circles was, in the psychologist Joseph Adelson’s words, “egalitarian and redistributionist in emphasis; tolerated or encouraged sensual gratification; valued self-expression, not self-restraint; accepted alternative or deviant forms of the family; and emphasized ethical relativism.”
In 1976, author Tom Wolfe coined the phrase “me decade” to explain what was happening. Daniel Bell wrote a brilliant book called the “Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism,” arguing that consumer capitalism was eroding the work ethic that made it possible. Sociologist Robert Nisbet warned of mass boredom. Neil Postman, poised between Marshall McLuhan and Facebook, wondered if multimedia and television might induce Americans to amuse themselves to death.
As Thomas B. Edsall observed, contemporary liberalism is “largely concerned with the rights of the individual—with freedom from oppression, from confinement, from hierarchy, from authority, from stricture, from repression, from rigid rule-making, and from the status quo.” And so yuppies, millennials, and hipsters travel light, making as few commitments as possible, often with credentials or inherited assets that give them wealth and choice, and as well as the freedom to be assertive, insouciant, and self-indulgent.
The Elites Replaced Religion With Political Dogmatism
As Lasch saw it, the thinking classes looked upon traditional religion with a disdain bordering on hostility. “The culture of criticism is understood to rule out religious commitments,” he noted. Religion is “something useful for weddings and funerals but otherwise dispensable.” The collapse of religion and “its replacement by the remorselessly critical sensibility exemplified by psychoanalysis, and the degeneration of the ‘analytic attitude’ into an all-out assault on ideals of every kind have left our culture in a sorry state.”
By Lasch’s lights, an emerging meritocracy of experts, specialists, professionals, and soon to come, self-esteem and diversity managers, constituted a major threat to democracy. What worked for a few able, smart and worldly cultural stylists who had the mental and financial resources to catch the Sixties style wave might have ghastly effects, if adopted by social followers who require moral order and rules to function.
With claims of esoteric, specialized knowledge, and versed in the lengthening list of regulations governing private and public life, said Lasch, the new despots include lawyers, academics, journalists, systems analysts, brokers, and bankers.
“Diversity – a slogan that is attractive on the face of it – has come to mean the opposite of what it appears to mean,” Lasch wrote in 1994, at the end of his life, when the victors of the culture wars on campus were solidifying leftist control of the humanities. “In practice, diversity turns out to legitimize a new dogmatism, in which rival minorities take shelter behind a set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion.” The elites who run the nation’s institutions “labor under the delusion that they alone have overcome racial prejudice,” he said. “The rest of the country, in their view, remains incorrigibly racist.”
“It is no longer necessary to argue with opponents on intellectual grounds or to enter into their point of view,” Lasch wrote, not in 2017 but more than twenty years beforehand. “It is enough to dismiss them as Eurocentric, racist, sexist, homophobic – in other words, as politically suspect.”
“Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels of romance and adventure, and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television,” Lasch wrote. “They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing.”
Middlebury Students Have A Lot In Common With Trump
Today, Middlebury and Claremont college students, intoxicated by self-esteem and identity politics, have more in common with Donald J. Trump, the narcissist impervious to the public consequences of his follies, than they think. Trump’s flagrant ignorance and disregard of basic constitutional rules betray the foundations of democracy and its constitutional fabric as nothing Americans have ever seen.
Global citizens, social justice warriors, diversity enforcers, and virtue-signaling “idealists” are trying to recover from the populist sucker punch delivered in last year’s presidential elections. They cannot understand or forgive their fellow Americans—those whom they had undermined, dispossessed and despised for decades—for voting as they did.
The culture of narcissism validates or celebrates behavior once considered coarse, delinquent, tragic, or mad. It empowers the most vulgar, soulless aspects of global capitalism, of which all but the elites are prisoners. When extended to people of modest intelligence, and those inclined toward bad judgment, doing your own thing and dancing in the streets is social poison. But as Christopher Caldwell has remarked, many standard-issue Americans, deprived of traditional community and social arrangements “could only focus on their own comfort, titillation, and self-esteem—they could only be narcissists.”
Elitist Pretense Can’t And Won’t Last
Americans live in a culture that says, “for artists there are no rules.” But this is not exactly true. Those who wish admittance into style’s elect must affirm and adhere to strict politico-cultural principles, most precisely in matters of race and gender. Aggressive cultural radicals, smelling blood, demand restitution for centuries of white privilege. Those unwilling to submit to diversity’s imperatives are labeled bigots and haters.
Those who think of themselves as a style elect and global citizens feel free to stereotype working-class, native-born Americans left behind as fat, crude, indolent, and tattooed drug addicts, gun nuts, and Bible thumpers. They are oblivious to the outcome of their own permissiveness, and to their role in the coarsening of the demos. These same citizens of the world sacralize African-Americans and hire obsequious, hardworking exotics to obtain cheap manual labor, while feeling multicultural in spirit and good about themselves.
“White” progressives still control most reins of power, along with assorted diversity allies. Some insist their first duty and obligation is to perform acts of contrition and restitution to recipients of historical neglect and injustice. Americans who want access to institutional power are expected to embrace creedal politics—identity-based, one-world, and sustainable—and to support the punishment of rogue ideas and heretics, Galileo-style.
This dogmatic stubbornness commits liberal society going forward to anomie, social decline, and greater coercion. Meanwhile, the cultural fantasia has collapsed into depraved entertainment. Shameless narcissism inside and outside politics barely imaginable to yeoman Americans a few decades ago is routine. This pretense and abandon can’t last. Lasch understood that, and today so do millions of fed-up Americans.