Hope beats Optimism: Blogging Lasch’s True and Only Heaven

20 May

Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) is perhaps one of the most prescient and perhaps undervalued social critics of recent history.  The True and Only Heaven’s still provocative conclusions strike at the heart of America’s current political gridlock and cultural anemia.  It puts flesh on the problems people across the political and social spectrum seem to suspect, but can’t fully describe.  That problem is the nature of our society’s belief in progress, and how the way that term has been defined and acted upon, has created an untenable order in American society.

Lasch notes three developments in the modern history of progress.  The first is a search for a utopian end of history.  The second is a belief in the inevitable conquest of rationality and reason.  These two incarnations have been widely panned and objectively repudiated in the upheavals of the last 200 years (i.e. wars, health crises, natural disasters).  However a third version prevails:  the belief in the inevitable, unending improvement to our standard of living.  Fueled by technological innovation and economic efficiency, improvement has become the new progress.  Lasch traces the roots of this thinking to the thought of Adam Smith, the patriarch of modern commerce.  Smith, according to Lasch, popularized the connection between consumption and the economic engine of production, which afforded ever increasing security, comforts and material abundance.  Smith believed because of their sheer numbers and productive potential that it was not so much the wealthy elite, but the striving middle classes, whose consumption and investments brought higher standards of living.  By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, economists and social critics Lasch introduces us to like Brooks Adams and Simon Patten were likewise extolling the virtues of inconspicuous consumption, especially among the broad masses of the middle and working classes.

In the wake of the Great Depression, it would be influential figures like John Keynes who would make this a matter of governing policy for leaders across the political spectrum.     felt that savings and investment should take a back seat to spending, because it was the latter that drove increased production through increased wants.  To overly save was to lack confidence in the future and history’s inevitable, if slow march, toward greater freedom and prosperity.  Such a system as Keynes advanced and many states accepted also had additional benefits in assuaging class divisions, neutralizing the Marxist threat.  Cultural benefits were also accrued. Americans would experience a flourishing of the arts and entertainment like never before, heralding a golden age of individual freedom.   This perspective became so common and pervasive that even in the ascendancy of Reagan conservatism and later Clintonian centrism, it has prevailed in one form or another.

However, Lasch was skeptical of these models.  He saw inherent moral and social dangers in the democratization of consumption being the foundation of America’s political economy.  He notes how divorced the concept of citizenship has become from the role of consumer or producer.   Disappointed in the response of the ruling or political classes to this looming threat, Lasch felt that influential conservatives and liberals, cast under the spell of progress in one form or another, were no longer capable of critiquing it.  Instead they were perpetuators of a broken system, which thought it was no longer answerable to the inexorable forces of history and morality.

The ideology of progress found throughout periods of Western history is no less present today.   One might recognize it in the form of the facile optimism that characterizes hyper-globalists.  It even insidiously burrows itself in anti-poverty or human rights movements when they act as if liberty is an end in itself.   Even in the complex universe of entertainment and consumerist culture there exists a drive toward upward mobility that has millions of Americans joining one “rat race” or another.  Lasch would likely peg recent political ideologies like “national greatness”, whether in liberal or conservative guise, as flawed, futile attempts to rescue republican, heroic virtues from the banality of our consumeristic, postmodern society.  By contrast, Lasch believes that only popular movements which call upon our moral energies and understand the tragic, consequential nature of life itself that seem to offer the hope and improvement which believers in progress truly seek.  Ultimately, says Lasch, “hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things in not flouted with impunity.”  That is an outlook which surely takes the long view.  In the next post, I’ll dive into a few examples of where Lasch observes hope and justice on the move in social history.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: