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Tag: christopher lasch

Robert Wiebe’s Self-Rule and American Democracy

I criticized Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven for reductionism, and in turn commenter Tocqueville criticizes me for reductionism. I think in the reductionism sweepstakes, it’s hard to beat a line like this:

The growing tolerance of profanity, sexual display, pornography, drugs, and homosexuality seemed to indicate a general collapse of common decency.

Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven

By the seventh or eighth time Lasch lists his grab-bag of decadent bugaboos, he really pushes credibility. For comparison, Lasch only mentions Vietnam about three times in the entirety of Heaven, which is fairly ridiculous for a book claiming to explain American culture during the 60s and 70s.

For a better, less-blinkered look at the 60s, the times which caused Lasch so much heartbreak, consider Morris Dickstein‘s Gates of Eden, which is ambivalent toward the movements of those times, but acknowledges their partial strengths and, more importantly, the logic of their evolution and collapse.

And for a better history of democracy and class in America, consider Robert Wiebe’s Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy, which addresses many of Lasch’s points in far more nuanced fashion.

Comparing the annotated bibliography’s of Wiebe and Lasch’s books is instructive. While Wiebe lists dozens if not hundreds of works of history and documentary, Lasch tends to focus on theoretical and ideological work. There are a couple exceptions, such as Lasch’s detailed list of works on 19th century populism and syndicalism. These were his areas of expertise in his younger years, and indeed he displays a far richer understanding of them than of the FDR and LBJ eras.

As one barometer, while Wiebe has read Lasch, Lasch has not read Wiebe, whose The Search for Order was already considered a classic at the time Lasch wrote Heaven. Lasch preferred to stick to Carlyle and Emerson, despite their being absurd elitists themselves.

Wiebe, in contrast, has comprehensively studied the entirety of American history in reasonably rigorous fashion, and it shows. Even when his conclusions are debatable, they do not seem to have arisen out of abiding prejudice.

Wiebe’s central thesis, like Lasch, revolves around the loss of popular involvement in American democracy, but Wiebe doesn’t blame it on the hippies and feminists. For Wiebe, Lasch’s beloved populists and syndicalists represented a dying breath rather than an invigoration. Wiebe points to the period of 1890 to 1920 as one in which the “people” started to drop out of democracy. During this time, he claims, the two-class system of enfranchised white men and the disenfranchised everyone else gave way to a three-class system of national elites, the local middle-class, and the lower class.

The history of the 20th century becomes the history of the first two of those new classes coming into increasing conflict while both ignored the lower class.

What emerged with industrialization in the United States was a three-class system, conflictual but not revolutionary: one class geared to national institutions and policies, one dominating local affairs, and one sunk beneath both of those in the least rewarding jobs and least stable environments–in the terminology of my account, a national class, a local middle class, and a lower class. New hierarchies ordered relations inside both the national and lower middle class; both of those classes, in turn, counted on hierarchies to control the lower class.

Like Lasch, Wiebe bemoans the national elites trying to assist the lower class without bothering to raise their civic awareness or solicit their votes, but Wiebe’s point is that this technocratic policy machine was in place long before the dirty hippies and the Warren Court showed up.

Turn of the century labor and suffragette movements fought for increasing political influence while tacitly accepting the emerging class divisions. The sheer homogeneity of white men and their nepotistic political clubs had helped form an egalitarian, populist sensibility amongst them that necessarily could not survive the enfranchisement of minorities and women. Wiebe of course has no nostalgia for those days, but he identifies in them a sense of white men’s investment in civics that has never been restored to the American people since.

Further fissures emerged around the time of the Great War. Popular support for the war convinced many intellectuals and policymakers that the “people” could not be trusted to act on their own behalf, and so they embraced a more centralized technocratic regime. By the time of FDR, Wiebe can point to a figure like government antitrust lawyer Thurman Arnold, whose Folklore of American Capitalism (1937) “derisively dismissed the very thought of popular rule.”

This system held stable to a point, but with the increasingly liberalized, top-down stance of the national class (at least domestically) and the increasingly visible consequences of those policies, the conservative local middle class grew antsy and alienated, leading to “Reagan Democrats” and the eventual reactionary shifts that then followed.

I think Wiebe underestimates the mostly unfortunate role that the media played in controlling the discourse from the late 70s onward, but his point that neither the local middle class nor the national class could claim popular legitimacy is well-taken, and it continues to be a genuinely serious problem for any national progressivism. This of course is Lasch’s point too, but Wiebe shows that Lasch has completely mistaken its origins.

The book turns more speculative at its end, where Wiebe prescribes a loose, multi-level communitarianism as a panacea for Americans’ alienation from their government. Far less draconian than the visions of Alastair MacIntyre or even Michael Sandel, his vision is a bit too diffuse to be convincing, as though the depths of the difficulties and conflicts he has just chronicled have overwhelmed him, a sign that he realizes that things have become too complicated and huge to make the reinclusion of the lower classes an easy thing. But I take this ultimately to be a sign of the strength of his historical account.

Christopher Lasch on Raising Children

Christopher Lasch was a confused and confusing cultural and political thinker, and The True and Only Heaven (1978) is not a good book, full of misappropriated intellectual ideas used in service of a fairly reductive and conservative attack on progressive thinking and cultural politics. (Albert Hirschman’s three reactionary tropes of perversity, futility, and jeopardy are on display throughout.) Lasch’s wide intellectual canvas, which incorporates Blumenberg and Löwith as well as Carlyle and Sorel, makes his simplistic agenda all the more regrettable.

But the introduction, which gives the personal background for how he came to such grouchy views, is rather touching and worth reading.

Like so many of those born in the Depression, my wife and I married early, with the intention of raising a large family. We were part of the postwar “retreat to domesticity,” as it is so glibly referred to today. No doubt we hoped to find some kind of shelter in the midst of general insecurity, but this formulation hardly does justice to our hopes and expectations, which included much more than refuge from the never-ending international emergency.

In a world dominated by suspicion and mistrust, a renewal of the capacity for loyalty and devotion had to begin, it seemed, at the most elementary level, with families and friends. My generation invested personal relations with an intensity they could hardly support, as it turned out; but our passionate interest in each other’s lives cannot very well be described as a form of emotional retreat. We tried to re-create in the circle of our friends the intensity of a common purpose, which could no longer be found in politics or the workplace.

We wanted our children to grow up in a kind of extended family, or at least with an abundance of “significant others.” A house full of people; a crowded table ranging across the generations; four-hand music at the piano; nonstop conversation and cooking; baseball games and swimming in the afternoon; long walks after dinner; a poker game or Diplomacy or charades in the evening, all these activities mixing children and adults— that was our idea of a well-ordered household and more specifically of a well-ordered education.

We had no great confidence in the schools; we knew that if our children were to acquire any of the things we set store by—joy in learning, eagerness for experience, the capacity for love and friendship—they would have to learn the better part of it at home. For that very reason, however, home was not to be thought of simply as the “nuclear family.” Its hospitality would have to extend far and wide, stretching its emotional resources to the limit.

Our failure to educate them for success was the one way in which we did not fail them—our one unambiguous success. Not that this was deliberate either; it was only gradually that it became clear to me that none of my own children, having been raised not for upward mobility but for honest work, could reasonably hope for any conventional kind of success.

The “best and brightest” were those who knew how to exploit institutions for their own advantage and to make exceptions for themselves instead of playing by the rules. Raw ambition counted more heavily, in the distribution of worldly rewards, than devoted service to a calling—an old story, perhaps, except that now it was complicated by the further consideration that most of the available jobs and careers did not inspire devoted service in the first place.

Diplomacy, really? That makes me smile.

And yet from this he drew the wrong lesson, blaming the failure of his children to integrate themselves into the world successfully (he says as much) on changing social mores, rather than on the “old story” he even cites above. He dismissively says:

Liberalism now meant sexual freedom, women’s rights, gay rights; denunciation of the family as the seat of all oppression; denunciation of “patriarchy”; denunciation of “working-class authoritarianism.”

Well, as someone who believes in some of the above, I can say that the sort of “extended family” he cites is not incompatible with them. But perhaps he saw his children rebelling and couldn’t distinguish the youthful urge to reject everything from the necessary push for social justice at the same time. It was probably something that was difficult to assess while it was going on. But it’s been 50 years and I think we can separate out what is and is not compatible with his happy vision above.

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