Furthest Right

Stop the Wheels (Paul Gottfried)

Stop the Wheels

Paul Gottfried




A social critic takes to task both Marxists and capitalists for worshipping at the altar of progress.

       Progress and Its Critics
       Christopher Lasch
       New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991
       591 pp., $25.00
       Since the 1960s University of Rochester history professor Christopher Lasch has produced volumes of social and cultural criticism, among them The Minimal Self, The Agony of the American Left, and the widely acclaimed The Culture of Narcissism. For those who have read either The Minimal Self or The Culture of Narcissism, his latest sprawling work should not contain surprises. As in his earlier writings, Lasch identifies himself with the socialist Left while blaming modern vices, particularly hedonism and individual self-indulgence, on the dynamics of market capitalism. His reductionism in this regard is as sweeping as that of neoconservatives, whom he blasts with considerable energy.
        While Peter Berger and Norman Podhoretz are properly scolded for tracing all social and political problems to “new class culture,” Lasch is equally obstinate in blaming all signs of moral disintegration on capitalism. As I myself suggested in a letter to Lasch, capitalism, as he explains it, is often a metaphor for human evil. It is also a highly protean contaminant, one that causes whatever Lasch chooses to lament: be it social therapy, sexual permissiveness, or the American military.
        Despite this hatred for the market system, or what remains of it, and his leftist affiliations, Lasch has a following that goes beyond his own side of the partisan spectrum. At a time of disalignment on the Right, he strikes notes that disaligned traditionalists like to hear. He defends the family, especially in its lower middle-class form, and speaks nostalgically of small towns. He warns against the Enlightenment’s appeal to universal rights and appears to take the side of rooted communities against multinational corporations and the therapeutic professions. He considers social psychologists and most social workers as the purveyors of capitalist self-indulgence rather than an ethic of responsibility.
        Even more important, Lasch tries to liberate democracy from the concept of progress, which he associates with Marxism as well as capitalism. Indeed, he scolds Marxists for perpetuating the identification of progress with material wealth, a tendency inherited from middle-class capitalists. Lasch’s invectives against social therapy, consumerism, and deracination can surely resonate on the Old Right even better than on the contemporary Left. He generously quotes, with agreement, paleoconservatives (including this author) throughout the opening section. In contrast, he is all bristles when it comes to discussing both neoliberals and neoconservatives. It is they who mistake the “gates of vanity,” which Nathaniel Hawthorne mocks in “The Celestial City,” for the true heaven lying in the distance.
        It may even be possible to find close links between Lasch’s criticism and that of the European New Right. Tomislav Sunic, in his newly published monograph Against Democracy and Equality (Peter Lang, 1990), hints at this overlap in looking at the critical perspective of European New Rightists, particularly Alain de Benoist. Sunic uncovers the postmodernist sensibility that is operative among these self-identified counterrevolutionaries. At war with both modern materialism and egalitarian politics, New Rightists blend the thought of the Marxist Antonio Gramsci with various traditionalist worldviews. What counts most for them is creating an eclectic front against late modernity; and the New Right associates the modernity it rejects with depersonalized human rights, feminism, large corporations, and global democracy. Though the European New Right demonology may not be entirely Lasch’s, neoconservatives, who have attacked both Lasch and the European New Right, are correct in seeing affinities between their enemies. What Lasch and Benoist would certainly view as a nightmare, neoliberals and neoconservatives would welcome, a universal democratic state with a single culture as the endpoint of history.
        Sunic notes how much the hatred of the idea of progress dominates the writings of the European New Right. Each and every issue of its premier publication, Nouvelle Ecole, edited by Benoist, contains polemics against “Progress,” for which an elaborate pedigree, going back to the Bible, has already been produced. New Rights see meliorism as alien to the European spirit, which they associate with the Greek and Nietzschean concept of cyclical time. They also treat progress as the pretext grasping corporate executives and social engineers seize on in order to upset established ways of life. They quote the Italian Marxist Gramsci to underscore their conviction that progress, which is also the target of Lasch’s attacks, is the ideology of the present ruling class. Those who control our material and political lives seek to extend their hegemony to our thinking. They consolidate their power by making us believe in the moral and cultural superiority of the present over other ages.
        Lasch and the subjects of Sunic’s work would agree entirely on this point, however much they might differ on the merits of democracy. With regard to his discussion of the victims of progress, however, Lasch has more in common with the American populist Right than the European New Right. The European rightists mock progressives while holding to heroic and artistic ideals; Lasch, on the other hand, dislikes having the same group as a spokesman for Middle America. He accepts what Sam Francis calls the “theory of Middle American immisceration,” stressing the incompatibility between blue-collar decency and economic growth. It is a cleaned-up Joe Six-pack and his nuclear family Lasch presents as the undeserving victims of both the economy and politics of unfettered development and unchecked appetites.
        All the same, there are problems with Lasch’s analysis that should make even critics of neoconservatives and neoliberals hesitate to embrace it. He makes capitalism into the steady villain of his piece, by using the concept with confusing vagueness. Unlike the neoconservatives, who, contrary to what he suggests, are emphatic about not confusing their capitalism (i.e., a mixed economy) and Adam Smith’s, Lasch tries to define capitalism by indiscriminately bringing up the modern corporate liberal economy, the by-now dwindling free market, shoddy advertising, and the proliferation of luxuries. All these phenomena are obviously related parts of our present-day society, but it is never made clear how they add up to capitalism. Both bureaucratic government and the cult of therapy are also laid at the same cluttered doorstep, but here the guilt by association becomes even more vague.
        Lasch confounds isomorphism with identity. A corporate liberal economy corresponds and contributes to managerial politics, but the two are nonetheless different, and neither is reducible to capitalism (whatever that means). Lasch could have refined his argument by tracing the evolution of late capitalism, as modified by the welfare state, into a constituent element of contemporary Western society. If he had, I would have no quarrel with his analysis.
        Unfortunately he takes a basically sound position and allows it to be colored by his animus against an ill-defined concept. Where he is right is in insisting that political and social changes are not merely derivative from faulty public instruction or insufficiently patriotic teachers. There are structural changes in the polity and economy that have made possible the therapeutic and victimological culture that Lasch rightly deplores. Without a democratic welfare state, it is hard to imagine that the propagators of that culture would have achieved their present level of visibility or power.
        On the other hand, Lasch denies obvious cultural facts that fail to fit his own biases. He mocks the idea that the media strongly symphathize with the political Left; and he responds to this statement rhetorically, by calling attention to the opulent settings of TV soaps. The leftist politics of the mediacrats is, alas, a matter of record, as voluminously proved in The Media Elite. Lasch weakens his case by not conceding this point.
        One may hope that Lasch will combine his moral passion and narrative skill with greater analytic and semantic vigor. Certainly the present volume will not be his last word on his or our social discontents, and Lasch’s productive capacities will likely result in new and provocative texts. Still in transition from his early Marxism to something else, Lasch may find his current populism is only a temporary resting place.


Paul Gottfried is a senior editor of the Modern Thought section of The World & I and author of The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right.

[The World and I (New York), March, 1991]


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