Posts Tagged ‘The True and Only Heaven’

Christopher Lasch and the case against progress

March 8, 2021

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.

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