A nice historical coincidence is that John Updike shared a room at Harvard with Christopher Lasch. Characters in Updike’s novels desperately pursue their “psychic self-improvement” in promiscuity, acquisition and introspection. Lasch wrote of such baby boomers in his non-fiction works. The difference is that while the novelist was inclined to celebrate them, Lasch was diagnosing cultural malaise.
In The Culture of Narcissism, his most famous book, Lasch took a scalpel to the West and found it to be bloated yet also undernourished; fat on the products of material success yet starved of meaning and identity. “Narcissism”, to his mind, was not merely self-love but an insecurity that leads its sufferers to crave validation. It is not, then, to employ achingly modern terms, the mere taking of a selfie but the desperate yearning for likes, comments and shares.
As a stylist, Lasch offered substantive insight with few additional pleasures. In The Culture of Narcissism his case is attritional, not in its polemical style but in its argumentative adamancy. Its Freudian detours were not terribly convincing for this sceptic of the old Austrian neurologist but I always found myself back on a reliable path.
Known as a conservative, Lasch focused much of his critique on modern capitalism. It had, to his mind, devalued the sense of purpose, achievement and brotherhood that must be found in work. The industrial revolution had “reduced the artisan or peasant to a proletarian, stripped him of his land and tools, and stranded him in the marketplace with nothing to sell but his labor power”. More recently, both blue-collar and white-collar jobs had experienced an “elimination of skills”, which had created “conditions in which labor power takes the form of personality rather than strength and achievement”.
This is perhaps overstated. The mechanic is as skilled as his farming forebears and the accountant is as smart as his auditing ancestors. Yet there is truth to it. A recent survey of employees from all kinds of occupations found that vast numbers of people feel their work is meaningless, often when it is mundane and demands limited skill and also when the products of it are removed from their experience or ability to appreciate; something that the scale of the modern commercial world has made more common. Fast food workers, for example, and car park attendants represent blue collar workers and clerks and managers represent the middle classes. When the methods of their work are tedious and the meaning of it is beyond them a large portion of their lives appears to be wasted and an opportunity for satisfaction is lost.
The modern workplace, Lasch claimed, had prioritised competition, with “victory over your competitors” alone retaining the ability to inspire self-approval. This, again, is overstatement swaddling truth. Viewers of the BBC’s capitalist cockfighting series The Apprentice will have seen the absurd heights of this phenomenon. I am not a foe of competition (and I doubt that Lasch is). It can inspire us in our work as in our sports. Yet its prioritisation is a problem. If it is our end as well as our means we become aggressive and eventually unsatisfied. There must be something else. What is there?
“Consumption promises to fill the aching void,” Lasch wrote…
The tired worker, instead of attempting to change the conditions of his work, seeks renewal in brightening his immediate surroundings with new goods and services…
One can extend this critique to wrongheaded ideological extents. Products give us pleasure. Our tongues love nice food. Our ears love nice music. Our bodies love the comforts of the modern world. Yet when products serve not to enhance our days but to alleviate their troubles that is a problem, and when they do not enrich our existence but define it that is also a problem. Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute has celebrated the sense of belonging and identity that young people can find in branded products, but I cannot help but think that if our communities are defined by our trainers they are neither satisfying nor sustainable.
“The propaganda of consumption,” Lasch writes…
…turns alienation into a commodity. It addresses itself to the spiritual desolation of modern life and proposes consumption as the cure. It not only promises to palliate all the old unhappiness to which flesh is heir; it creates or exacerbates new forms of unhappiness – personal insecurity, status anxiety, anxiety in parents about their inability to satisfy the needs of their young.
I recall an advertisement in which a family endured a grey, miserable Christmas together before the arrival of a new video game brought colour and excitement to the festivities.
This is not, of course, the average family’s experience but it felt morbid in a time of familial collapse, where divorce and single motherhood are now ubiquitous. Lasch could not have predicted the extent to which young people would be forced to seek the affirmation in the outside world that they could not find in the home.
The past has long been a source of meaning and identity. Man locates himself within his traditions and is inspired by the achievements of the men who came before him and the chance to extend their customs. Lasch maintained that in our times the past had been reduced, and thus cheapened, to “nostalgia” (to which we can add “retro”)…
A society that has made “nostalgia” a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today. Having trivialised the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present.
Tradition has been commodified and, in our times, problematised. It is something that many people are more tempted to escape from than connect with.
Disconnection is indeed an essential theme: disconnection from one’s peers, from one’s parents and from one’s past. Traditional sources of affirmation and authority have declined and while many have welcomed their new freedom to define themselves others are left to drift about and clutch at scraps of meaning.
“Narcissism”, for Lasch, is a symptom of this. In exploring it, he was an early critic of what has been called virtue signalling. He writes of confessional artists, who disdain the time-consuming work of analysing and evaluating their experiences and pour them onto the page both to appeal to the salacious instincts of their audience and to “seduce others into giving [them] their attention, acclaim, or sympathy, and thus to shore up [their] faltering sense of self”. Later, Lasch extends this critique by saying that modern men “seek the kind of approval that applauds not your actions but your personal attributes.”
This is a superficial kind of validation, which Lasch emphasises as he writes on narcissism and old age. We should not wish to grow old in a society where the charms of youth are valued high above the wisdom of experience. Then, Lasch writes, “the prime of life…comes to be overshadowed by the fear of what lies ahead.”
The Culture of Narcissism was also prescient in its consideration of the role of irony. The unhappy man…
…seeks to escape…by creating an ironic distance from his daily routine…He takes refuge in jokes, mockery and cynicism…By refusing to take seriously the routines he has to perform, he denies their capacity to injure him.
As one of mild absurdist sympathies I am inclined to sympathise with such a man. Our societies, and the universe itself, can be so odd that laughter is all we have. Yet it always ends, and when it ends the silence can be grim.
Lasch dwells on the subject of “escapism”. For him, its value in our social lives should not be overstated. Sport, for example, is not a pure world of play but also a chance to “dramatize reality and to offer a convincing representation of the community’s values.” ” The ancient connections between games, ritual, and public festivity,” he writes, “Suggest that although games take place within arbitrary boundaries, they are nevertheless rooted in shared traditions to which they give objective expression.” In ritual we find something beyond ourselves, and can humbled by perspective yet affirmed by participation. It is almost as important to societies as eating, and, like food, people will get it wherever they can.
Our society is one of enormous tradeoffs. Industrialisation and commercialisation have brought material blessings that our ancestors could not imagine. If you like to have a belly full of food, a mouth full of teeth and a gut free of worms you should accept this. Liberal ideas that have accompanied such social changes have also granted us freedom that we all exploit in satisfying our tastes, our preferences and our ambitions. Nonetheless, we face dramatic, often dangerous consequences: both material, as with environmental devastation, demographic chaos and economic insecurity, and spiritual, in atomisation and ennui. This staid prophet has much to teach us, and the least that we can recognise is that any solution will be found between ourselves, not within ourselves.