Reading: It Doesn't Get Better Than This | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: It Doesn't Get Better Than This 

Christopher Lasch has written an interesting, sometimes fascinating, critique in our belief in the possibility of progress. Unfortunately he has very little to recommend in its place.

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Progress! Once the word rang like a bell, and not so long ago it was an assumption that didn't even need to be voiced. Americans took for granted that living standards would steadily improve. Humanists believed in the moral and rational progress of humanity. Marxists were certain that an inevitable historical progression would lead to socialism and communism. Most everybody thought that disease, poverty, and backwardness were being overcome through science and technology. Many believed in the Enlightenment virtues associated with human progress--objectivity, rationality, and universalism.

But who believes all that today? In this country, a stagnant economy serves as backdrop to burgeoning poverty, increasing inequality, and the maturing of a generation who can only expect to do worse economically than their parents. White racism has not exactly disappeared; infant mortality among blacks is twice that of whites, and unemployment is three times as high. As for medical progress--not only has a new plague appeared and spread, but an old one like tuberculosis is making a comeback in new, resistant forms. Instead of a new age of reason, we have rampant fundamentalism on one hand, new-age religions on the other, and a lot of well-founded doubt about the powers of rationality. Around the globe, famine, internecine warfare, and political repression reveal that increasingly people turn to various forms of ol'-time religion, racial prejudice, and ethnic nationalism for certainty and guidance. We're still a long way from paradise, and "retrogression" seems a more apt term than "progress" to describe recent history.

Historian and culture critic Christopher Lasch doesn't find any of this surprising. In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics he argues that progress--or at least the belief in it--is the problem, not the solution, despite a widespread conviction that human progress can create "the true and only heaven" (a phrase from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad").

The modern idea of progress, Lasch is at pains to point out, is not the old belief in a religious millennium--not the idea that someday there will be a heaven on earth--but a newer notion, linked to capitalism: "not the promise of a secular utopia that would bring history to a happy ending but the promise of steady improvement with no foreseeable ending at all." This idea of progress is held by contemporary liberals and conservatives alike, and by socialists, Marxists, and other would-be radicals. But it's a prospect, Lasch says, that's no longer sustainable--not practically, not politically, and not morally. "The belated discovery that the earth's ecology will no longer sustain an indefinite expansion of productive forces," Lasch writes, "deals the final blow to the belief in progress. A more equitable distribution of wealth . . . requires at the same time a drastic reduction in the standard of living enjoyed by the rich nations and the privileged classes."

It's apparent that Lasch generally aligns himself with the left, and his book contains some pointed jabs at corporate capitalism and American imperialism. Yet the bulk of The True and Only Heaven is a critique of traditional leftism. Nor is Lasch mainly motivated by ecological concerns, despite his reference to "earth's ecology." He finds his inspiration instead in a traditional American moralism, and most of his book is an attempt to trace this lineage.

This tradition, as Lasch sees it, is "anticapitalist but not socialist or social democratic; at once radical, even revolutionary, and deeply conservative." In his view it's manifested in such figures as Tom Paine, Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Martin Luther King, as well as in certain movements and organizations: Jacksonian democrats, the early Republican Party, the Knights of Labor, and especially the 19th-century agrarian populists. In this tradition social health is held to be based on the sturdy independence of artisans, farmers, and small producers--not bankers, creditors, speculators, and middlemen, all seen as parasitic--and the growth of corporations and wage labor is to be opposed because it undermines individual responsibility and independence.

It's a tradition that Marxists and other social theorists would characterize as petty bourgeois, and have often stigmatized as limited and reactionary. Their challenge is readily taken up by Lasch, who proudly pins his flag to the mast of the petty bourgeoisie, lauding "its egalitarianism, its respect for workmanship, its understanding of the value of loyalty, and its struggle against the moral temptation of resentment." These, he claims, are "the materials on which critics of progress have always had to rely if they wanted to put together a coherent challenge to the reigning orthodoxy."

This countertradition to the "reigning orthodoxy" of faith in progress looks for a social order that will foster individual virtue. Instead of a vision of endless progress, in this line of thought what's needed is an awareness of human limits, both individual and social. These critics would replace the progressive's optimism--which Lasch sees as both mindless and heartless--with hope, which "asserts the goodness of life in the face of its limits."

Lasch argues that just such a vision is needed today, opposing it to liberalism, Marxist-derived radicalism, and the recently popular communitarian vision. Actually, though, the book is less argument than it is history, as Lasch draws the lineage of the tradition he favors; most of his arguments have to do with the correct interpretation of the people and movements he's chosen to include. And this exercise in cultural and intellectual history is undeniably interesting, even fascinating at times, as Lasch ranges over the last few centuries like a mushroom hunter with his sack.

Besides familiar Americans like Paine and Emerson and William James, Lasch looks at British and European social thinkers like G.D.H. Cole and Georges Sorel, and at other, lesser-known Americans like Orestes Brownson and Henry George. George (perhaps better known than Brownson) was a late-19th-century reformer whose best-selling book, Progress and Poverty, advocated a single tax to be levied only on land--which he saw as the source of all wealth. There are still a tiny handful of adherents to George's political philosophy, and although Lasch is not among them, he does see merit in George's distrust of progress and ideal of "a world of small proprietors." Brownson was an earlier social critic who ran through a gamut of philosophies, as Lasch makes clear: "An Owenite socialist in his twenties, he later embraced the cause of working-class radicalism, briefly called himself a Jacksonian Democrat, soured on democracy after the log-cabin, hard-cider campaign of 1840, allied himself for a time with John C. Calhoun, and finally settled down as a Catholic conservative in the last twenty-five years of his life." One might wonder what Lasch finds valuable in this montage of opinions; it seems the answer is simply that Brownson "opposed the whole trend toward a more and more highly specialized division of labor" and advocated proprietorship instead of wage labor. Lasch's point is that the American tradition of "civic republicanism," which Brownson was not part of, was not the only source of such ideas.

Yet by including people like Brownson, an admitted conservative, even reactionary, Lasch raises questions about the tradition he says he's delineating. Is this a coherent tradition? And does it have the "revolutionary" character Lasch claims it has? There's no doubt that idealizing the individualism and independence of family farms and small businesses has been a common theme in American thought. But Lasch doesn't do much more than point to this fact--he never really demonstrates a consistent social philosophy or comprehensive political program shared by those in this tradition.

And simply to lament the passing of the small, independent producer is not in itself particularly radical. In fact obeisance to this theme is a cliche of American political rhetoric across the spectrum. It's true that such ideas have animated some deep and vibrant protest movements, particularly in the 19th century, as in the populists. But they've also been part of some reactionary, often racist trends--particularly in this century, as in George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign. Lasch fails to show that the tradition he's isolated (if it is an integral tradition) has formulated a coherent or realistic program of reform.

Lasch does have some awareness of these facts. He notes early on that what he's tracing is "not so much an intellectual tradition as a sensibility. . . . most simply described, perhaps, as the sensibility of the petty bourgeoisie," as shown in thinkers who "embodied the conscience of the lower middle class." He also announces that he has "no intention of minimizing the narrowness and provinciality of lower-middle-class culture, nor do I deny that it has produced racism, nativism, anti-intellectualism, and all the other evils so often cited by liberal critics."

In the main, though, Lasch takes very little of this into account, instead defending his chosen class against all who would malign it. That works well when he gives liberal thinkers some well-deserved blasts for their elitism, their "all power to the experts" attitude, and their tendency to consign their adversaries' opinions to the realm of psychological pathology rather than argue them. But when it comes to cases of lower-middle-class narrowness, Lasch can see no evil. Thus he explains away the often blatant racism of the antibusing crusades of the 1970s, while he says on behalf of those who violently resisted Martin Luther King's open-housing marches in the Chicago suburb of Cicero that their "only crime . . . was their sense of ethnic solidarity." He gives the antiabortion movement a similar sympathetic gloss, and argues that all the rightist tendencies of the 1980s were caused by the excesses of liberalism: the Vietnam antiwar movement and the 1960s attack on Middle America. In dealing with these subjects Lasch simply echoes the standard line of the new right.

Finally, what is the social philosophy, derived from the petty bourgeois sensibility, that Lasch would propose? He points to populism, but also admits at the end of his book: "The populist tradition . . . asks the right questions, but it does not provide a ready-made set of answers. It has generated very little in the way of economic or political theory. . . . Its advocates call for small-scale production and political decentralization, but they do not explain how these objectives can be achieved in a modern economy. Lacking a clearly developed theory of production, populists have always fallen easy prey to paper money fads and other nostrums, just as they fall prey to the kind of social resentments exploited so effectively by the new right." This statement comes as a rather jarring surprise after more than 500 pages of recommendation of this tradition.

In fact it amounts to an admission that Lasch doesn't have a social or political solution. (Welcome to the club.) But why couldn't he have just laid his cards on the table from the first? He might have spared us his haughty attitude and scornful put-downs and written a better book.

Indeed Lasch's overly polemical tone is one of the chief defects of The True and Only Heaven. Too often his attitude is one of beleaguered self-righteousness, as he sarcastically flays all those with divergent views. Lasch also often exhibits the polemical vice of misleadingly characterizing those with whom he disagrees. Prochoice women, for example, are stereotyped along the lines of his "all power to the experts" model, seen as believing in technological fixes, social engineering, and the desirability of licensing pregnancies--all on the basis of one or two respondents in a survey. He then says that this position leads more or less inevitably to genetic engineering, "to the arrogant assumption of the power to make summary judgments about the 'quality of life,' and to a willingness to consign not only a 'defective' fetus but whole categories of defective or superfluous individuals to the status of nonpersons." This is polemical "reasoning" at its worst.

The most frequent targets of Lasch's misleading barbs are Marx and his followers. It would be tedious to catalog them all, but one point is worth making: Lasch says that Marx was contemptuous of and hostile toward the petty bourgeoisie, and that Marxists view this class's objections to progress as sentimental and reactionary. But Marxists generally oppose petty bourgeois ideology not because it's reactionary but because it's futile--an attempt to restore conditions (those of small proprietorship) that even if they could be reestablished would fall victim to exactly the same forces that destroyed them in the first place: a capitalist economy's tendencies toward centralization and concentration. The petty bourgeois viewpoint is scorned, in other words, for precisely those weaknesses Lasch admits it has--a lack of political or economic theory, entailing a failure to explain how its vision could possibly be realized in the context of a highly developed capitalist economy.

It's really too bad that Lasch allows himself these sorts of lapses, for many points in his book are well-taken. There's his critique of the glorification of tradition and community, as well as of nostalgia, which "evokes the past only to bury it alive." There's his urging of the need for vigorous public debate, and his analysis of the uses to which the concept of the "new" professional-managerial class has been put. Lasch also ranges over a multitude of interesting topics, taking issue with the distinction between community and society (familiar to every sociology student from the terms Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft) and with the supposed influence of "civic republicanism" in America.

But one of Lasch's basic points--that the universalistic ideologies of progress have increasingly lost both intellectual foundation and moral legitimacy--has been widely voiced over the past decade. And as we've seen, his argument for an alternative viewpoint is pretty thin. The man could definitely benefit from a bit of intellectual and political modesty--a virtue that would seem right in line with his "ethic of limits." As it is, his self-righteous polemics undermine what could have been a fruitful dialogue about what's wrong with our society and where we might go from here.

The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics by Christopher Lasch, W.W. Norton & Company, $25 (hardcover), $14.95 (paperback).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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