Christopher Lasch and the case against progress

The American Dream, as I was taught growing up, is that it is possible for members of every generation, provided they make the effort, to be better off than members of the generation before.

Recently I finished reading THE TRUE AND ONLY HEAVEN: Progress and Its Critics by Christopher Lasch (1991), which argues that all this is an illusion.  He wrote that limitless material progress is not only impossible, but incompatible with the idea of justice.

Lasch, who died in 1994 at the age of 61, was a thinker who didn’t fit any of the usual categories.  A radical in politics and economics, he was a conservative in morals and culture. 

Virtue in the contemporary USA is equated with striving for success, according to Lasch.  Success is defined as improving your economic and social status.  This is not enough to inspire a good society or a good life.

He is nearly forgotten now, but I find his ideas more relevant today than I did during his lifetime.  Most Americans are pessimistic about the future, and with good reason.

Lasch didn’t believe in optimism, which is faith that things are bound to get better.  He believed in hope, which is the unwillingness to give up.

The True and Only Heaven is an intellectual history.  Lasch told how various thinkers, generation by generation, decided it was necessary to subordinate tradition, religion, family loyalty, self-government, patriotism and other moral principles to the goal of increasing moral output with less work.

The book begins with Adam Smith and the idea that free enterprise plus self-interest would ensure ever-increasing material abundance.

Smith did have misgivings, as Lasch noted.  He thought enlightened self-interest was an ignoble motive, compared to patriotism and religious faith. 

He noted that the widening of the market would lead to increasing division of labor.  He predicted assembly-line production, which he saw as degrading.  He also worried about replacement of militias with professional armies, which he saw as leading to a decline of discipline and patriotism.

But Smith was no friend of large corporations, which is his day were almost all government-established monopolies.  His vision was a society of prosperous independent farmers, artisans and shopkeepers.

He famously said that the self-interest of the baker, the brewer and the butcher who provided him with his dinner would be kept within the limits of a baseline middle-class Protestant morality.  As for the rest, he hoped popular education would make up the difference.

Smith’s vision seemed to be realized in the northern United States between the Revolution and the Civil War.  It seemed that any hardworking, thrifty Protestant white man could thrive as a farm owner, shopkeeper or self-employed artisan.  Working for wages was something you only did when you were getting started in life.

After the Civil War, as the USA transformed from an agricultural to an industrial nation, it became apparent that the economy would be dominated by large corporations, and that the majority of American workers would be “hirelings” all their working lives.

This was shocking, at the time.  Many an editorial was written about the equivalence of “wage slavery” and “chattel slavery.” 

But in the end, most people accepted the corporate form of capitalism as the price of continued progress. 

Karl Marx was one of them.  In contrast to the “utopian” socialists, who experimented with alternative ways of organizing society, he thought corporate capitalism was a stage through which civilization had to pass on the way to socialism.

He wrote about how capitalism substituted profit-seeking for all other values—tradition, community, kinship, religion, even the marriage bond. 

But Marx thought that was a good thing in the long run because these older values were obstacles to human liberation, which could be achieved once industrial productivity reached the point of being able to provide abundance for all.

John Maynard Keynes thought the salvation of capitalism required the sacrifice of the core values of capitalism itself—hard work and thrift.  Rather the functioning of the capitalist machine required spending and borrowing in order to maintain consumer demand.

He, too, looked forward to a future of effortless abundance, without, in his case, even the need for revolution.

Material output in the USA, UK and other industrial nations has reached the level that Keynes hoped for.  But here is the result, according to Lasch—

To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light.

This perspective unmistakably reveals the unwholesomeness … of our way of life: our obsession with sex, violence and the pornography of “making it”; our addictive dependence on drugs, “entertainment” and the evening news; our impatience with anything that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially constraints of marital and family ties; our preference for “nonbinding commitments”; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we “impose” our morality on others and thus invite others to “impose” their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged; our indifference to the needs of future generations, as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction and a deteriorating environment; our inhospitable attitude toward the newcomers born into our midst; our unstated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all.

It didn’t have to be that way, Lasch wrote.  Economic and intellectual elites consciously chose material progress over other values, and opposed those who proposed alternatives.

Marx thought that as capitalism developed, workers’ resistance to capitalism would grow, leading to an ultimate takeover of the corporate system.  He scorned the petit bourgeoisie—independent farmers, craft workers and small-business owners.

But as Lasch pointed out, the petit bourgeoisie are precisely the kinds of people who led revolutionary movements.  He said it is easier to uproot a bad system in its early stages than wait until after people have lost any memory of alternatives.

The Populists, the radical U.S. farmers’ movement in the 1890s, are an example of this.  He wrote that they were neither ignorant yokels, as Richard Hofstadter wrote, nor forerunners of the New Deal, as John D. Hicks and Thomas Frank have written.

Rather their aim was to take back control of their lives and their communities from the banks, the railroad companies and the middle-men.  They weren’t trying to create a utopian future, but to defend a way of life.  Their ideals were self-reliance, responsibility and citizenship.

They began by trying to create their own banks and marketing co-operatives, some of which exist today.  They did ask the government to regulate the railroad monopolies and reform the currency because they didn’t have the power to build their own railroads or print their own money. 

In contrast, the Progressive movement of the early 20th century did not challenge the need for large corporate organizations, but sought to regulate them in the public interest. 

But anarchists and syndicalists in that era opposed the corporate model, while Herbert Croly, a leading Progressive writer, advocated “industrial self-government.” 

The International Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, were true revolutionaries.  IWW leaders such as Joe Hill or Big Bill Haywood were like the gunslingers in Western movies.  They’d come to town, perceive an injustice, organize a strike and leave town. 

Rootless Greenwich Village intellectuals liked and identified with the Wobblies, Lasch said, because they supposedly were completely free spirits.  But that was just the problem, he wrote.  They had no roots in local communities and left no lasting legacy.

In England, G.D.H. Cole advocated “guild socialism,” also a form of industrial self-government.  But the predominant left-wing movement there was Fabian Socialism, which accepted the corporate hierarchy as a model for society, but sought to socialize it.

Syndicalism was strongest in France, and it was led by artisans and independent craftsmen.  Marxists disapproved of their philosophy, but had to admire their revolutionary spirit.

During and after the First World War, the U.S. and U.K. governments arrested revolutionary and radical leaders and broke up their organizations.  Most progressives signed up for the war supposedly to make the world safe for democracy.

Disillusionment followed.  Intellectuals did not reproach themselves for being duped by U.S. and British propaganda.  Instead they decided they had been too idealistic about democracy.

American intellectuals in the 1920s embraced what Lasch called “the politics of the civilized minority,” which set itself apart from both the ignorant masses and the ignorant plutocrats. 

Novelists and sociologists wrote about the mediocrity of American small-town life.  Walter Lippmann argued that an informed public opinion is impossible, and policy must be set by experts.  Intellectuals’ focus was on fighting censorship and defending intellectual freedom for the enlightened few.

Lasch had surprisingly little to say about the New Deal era, the major turning point of 20th century American history.  The 1930s saw the birth of the welfare state, and the 1940s the birth of the permanent warfare state, both of which we still have with us.

There were many cross currents in that era,  but Lasch, like Richard Hofstadter, saw the New Dealers as basically technocrats. 

His representative New Dealer was Thurman Arnold, author of The Folklore of Capitalism and head of the anti-trust division of the Department of Justice. 

Christopher Lasch

According to Lasch, Arnold thought common beliefs about democracy and free enterprise were delusional.  Arnold wrote, not entirely tongue in cheeck, that the public should be treated like inmates of a mental institution; they should be ruled by experts who humor and manipulate them for their own good.

During the Cold War era, liberal intellectuals once again focused on the defense of intellectual freedom, threatened, as they (I should say “we”) saw it, by Communism abroad and McCarthyism at home.

Psychologists and sociologists wrote about the authoritarian personality and working-class authoritarianism.  They linked the propensity to fascism to the traditional patriarchal family structure, which emphasized hard work, family ties, obedience to authority and stoic acceptance of life’s harsh realities.

The authoritarian family structure was said to be common to blue-collar workers.  It was considered less advanced than the  permissive family structure of the educated professional class. 

Each type of family structure is adapted to the realities of the lives of a different social class.  One fits children to survive in a harsh world; the other teaches them to take advantage of opportunities in a forgiving world.  I’m reminded of Chris Arnade’s “front-row kids” and “back-row kids.”

John F. Kennedy was a front-row kid.  Liberals idolized John F. Kennedy and his extended family because they embodied an ideal of excellence—educated, cultured, athletic, stylish, “cool.”  JFK’s actual accomplishments mattered little.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. represented something entirely different—a radical Protestant Christian tradition based on gratitude for God’s blessings and a “spiritual discipline against resentment.”  He was one of the few leaders or thinkers that Lasch whole-heartedly admired.

He rejected the idea that coercion and hatred were necessary to defeat coercion and hatred.  Like Abraham Lincoln, whom he admired, Dr. King “urged his followers to refuse any compromise with injustice, but to combine militancy with moral forbearance and forgiveness.”

The result was a successful social revolution.  To anyone who was alive during that era, it is apparent that the South prior to the civil rights era and the South afterwards were as different as night and day (which is not to say prejudice and poverty have disappeared)

This was achieved because Dr. King and his followers were able to fight without hate.

King’s success was due to the deep-rooted African-American belief in Christianity, but also due to the institutions that black Southerners had built up over the years—not only their own churches, but black businesses, newspapers, radio stations and colleges, all of which provided backup for the movement.

During the Montgomery bus boycott, for example, black taxi companies provided transportation for boycotters for the same rates they’d have paid in bus fares.

Dr. King failed when he tried to bring his movement to the North, Lasch said, because poor black people in the big cities did not have the same institutional or cultural resources. 

Also, the protests were not based on overcoming unjust and unconstitutional laws, but trying to integrate close-knit ethic urban neighborhoods whose residents didn’t want change. 

Many white liberals who supported the protests lived themselves in all-white neighborhoods that were not affected.

King might have had greater success, Lasch speculated, if he had campaigned for black community control.  But, he wrote in a footnote, this would have required a large infusion of federal funds into black communities, and this (in my opinion) would have made community control an illusion.  There’s no such thing as being empowered if somebody else controls the money flow.

Polls indicated that the black community was split 50-50 on court-ordered busing to integrate the Boston school system, while white people were overwhelmingly opposed.  Nevertheless the “civilized minority” of white liberals were determined to make it happen.

It would have been better, Lasch wrote, to have abandoned racial integration and worked for strong racially and ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods that respected each others’ integrity. 

But leaders of the anti-busing movement never made this argument.  They were never able to get beyond resentment and prejudice, he wrote.

Ronald Reagan and other fake populist conservatives appealed to this resentment and prejudice.  But their bogus cultural class war never got at the real threat to family and neighborhood ties, which is unchecked consumerism and corporate power.

In 1991, Lasch saw little cause for optimism.  He didn’t see how small-scale production and decentralized government could have a future in a modern economy.

But he also saw that a society based on ever-increasing output is unsustainable.  Fuel and other vital resources are limited.  Environmental degradation past a certain point is intolerable. 

On top of that, we have a global pandemic, possibly the first of many, plus climate catastrophes caused by global warming.

The big corporations and the big bureaucracies are floundering.  Global supply chains are proving unreliable.  Even before the pandemic, demographers were writing about “deaths of despair.”

As the saying goes, when something cannot go on forever, someday it will stop.

We the people already know that state socialism doesn’t work.  Our neoliberal economic order is breaking down, and for many of the same reasons.

So small-scale production and decentralized government may be thrust upon us, along with the need for self-reliance and competence.  Of course none of these things, in and of themselves, guarantee democracy or liberty.  There’s reason for hope, if not necessarily optimism.


Christopher Lasch WIkipedia article.

On the Moral Vision of Democracy, a conversation with Christopher Lasch for Chambers (1991)

The Revolt of the Elites: Have they canceled their allegiance to America? by Christopher Lasch for Harper’s magazine (1994)

Tags: , ,

3 Responses to “Christopher Lasch and the case against progress”

  1. Steve in Texas Says:

    Dear Phil, Thank you so much for this thoughtful and insightful review-essay. I fear you and Lasch are right that the existing system is breaking down, along with the widespread popular beliefs and attitudes that supported it.

    To me, perhaps the most poignant thing in your essay was your report on Lasch’s observation that the time to resist changes is early on, when people can still remember an alternative.

    I was born in the 1940s to parents who had a solid marriage. So did every other couple on our block-long street in our ethnic, working-class neighborhood. I received an excellent public school education from teachers who were competent and pretty much respected, in school and out.

    In high school, I rode a Greyhound bus to Washington, DC, where I was in the crowd to hear Dr. king deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.

    I went to college on scholarship–while the guys I had grown up were drafted, and sometimes went to Vietnam.

    For my generation, it was the war that seemed to break America. Kicked out of college in 1968, it was many years before I returned and eventually qualified as a college English teacher. I stopped teaching a few years ago

    But to return to Lasch’s point about being able to remember an alternative:

    In my latter years of teaching, many of my hard-pressed, stressed-out students, through no fault of their own, seemed COMPLETELY UNABLE TO IMAGINE what I was asking them to do.

    Walking over to the school library and finding and checking out a book they found interesting was completely beyond them. American history was unknown to them. Often, the rules of CAPITALIZATION were unknown to them. High school had been watching videos, no one had ever written a term paper, and in high school, nothing had ever been due.

    At the end of a high school course, having done no work, they could check into “Credit Recovery,” do some work with a computer program, and receive a grade.

    These were kids who came from what would once have been the traditional working class.

    But just as Lasch observes, the family was no longer holding up, and neither was the church or the neighborhood. The culture of my students was superhero movies and Instagram. A large percentage of them were on drugs, prescribed or otherwise.

    And the culture of the teachers had also taken a hit. By the end of my years of teaching, “adjunct” college teachers were treated no better, really, than day-laborers picked up by a contractor, and told to climb in the back of his pickup truck.

    Today, with the pandemic still going on, my wife and I live quietly in a neighborhood where our neighbors are day-laborers or handymen.

    Selectively, I read the New York Times online, but the evident concerns of Times readers, those “front-of-the-class kids,” have NOT percolated down to people on the street where we live.

    I certainly don’t think Trump had any answers, but a couple of the QUESTIONS he raised in his early days seemed like the right ones. Are these wars ever going to end? What happened to all the jobs that paid a living wage? Do the “experts” (like the Times columnists) who supported invading Iraq, and before that shipping five million jobs overseas, really deserve to be listened to?

    I hope for the best for this country. I’d like to see the Democrats pass that omnibus Voting Rights bill of theirs. Maybe if many more people COULD vote, politicians would arise, unlike the ones we’ve seen recently, who offered even the back-of-the-class kids something to vote FOR.

    As Lasch recommends, I’m hopeful–without being optimistic. Since I’m retired, I’ve requested Lasch’s big book through interlibrary loan.

    I’m thankful the library is out there. And like all your readers, Phil, I’m grateful for everything you’re doing. I certainly learn a lot from you than I ever will from the New York Times.


  2. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I probably don’t define progress quite the same way. Progress implies making headway in a journey towards a goal. And while you might say that we have the wrong goal in mind, that doesn’t mean that progress is itself bad or futile.

    If you take the view that progress is becoming better adapted to the environment you live in and that the environment itself is always changing, progress is really the only alternative to extinction.


  3. philebersole Says:

    I’m not one to disparage material progress. My grandfather, Frank Ebersole, was a poor farmer, who lacked electricity or running water for much of his life and whose life was mostly hard labor and not much fun. I’m thankful that I and my generation of Ebersoles don’t have to live like that.

    But there are surveys that indicate that increasing wealth, above and beyond the amount needed to provide you with the necessities of life, doesn’t necessarily make you happier.

    Somebody wrote on a comment thread that we need to learn that it is possible to be happy, sitting on a baked clay floor next to a wood stove, reading Cicero.

    I’m not ready for that, myself, but I’m a product of a time when unlimited progress seemed possible. Sometimes trends seem like exponential growth, but then they become S-curves and then bell-shaped curves returning to the starting point.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: