Christopher Lasch

American Life and Diminishing Expectations

VTR Date: June 18, 1979


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Christopher Lasch
Title: “American Life and Diminishing Expectations”
VTR: 6/18/79

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Our subject today is a book, an idea, a man, a view of all three. The book: The Culture of Narcissism. Its idea: Bound up in its description of what it calls “A way of life that is dying, the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.” The man: the author of The Culture of Narcissism, historian and social critic Christopher Lasch.

Professor Lasch, thank you for joining me today. I must say that I found your book, which you subtitle, American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, extraordinarily — you’ll forgive me – pessimistic. And yet in your preface I noted that you say, you write, “Much could be written about the signs of new life in the United States”. Was that a sentence to be tossed away?

LASCH: To appease the reader? I think it would be possible to write a book about the signs of new life. On the other hand, I don’t think that there’s much to be gained from minimizing the problems that we face. And if it’s a pessimistic book, I think…Or, I don’t think it is a pessimistic book. I think that part of the feeling that it is has something to do with my refusal really to prescribe easy remedies or solutions or programs. I think that Americans have always been extremely fortunate and have cultivated the tendency to assume that if there’s a problem there must be a solution. And they want to talk about the solutions rather than attempting to achieve a deeper understanding of the problem.

HEFFNER: Yet you seem to be unwilling to say there’s a problem and there’s no solution. You too seem to need to – forgive me for saying “need to” – but you do indicate that perhaps there are some solutions and as you suggest one could write a book about newness.

LASCH: Well, the solutions have to be faced at the social and political level, I think. I don’t think that there are personal solutions. I think that it’s an illusion to suppose that in an increasingly chaotic and even dangerous society it’s possible to make a kind of separate peace or to carve out some island of private tranquility or relative peace. The attempt to do so through various forms of therapy and self-awareness in the recent, in the last decade, I think, has been based on that illusion. So the first thing, it seems to me, is for people to recognize that what often seems to be personal difficulties which present themselves in terms of personal problems and therefore seem to be susceptible of this kind of therapeutic solution are at bottom social in their origin.

HEFFNER: Well, I started off by talking about or getting you to talk about solutions. What’s the problem? How do you define the problem in your book on narcissism?

LASCH: Well, the book argues that…First of all, it’s clear if you read psychiatric literature, clinical studies, that for the last 25, 30 years at least, there’s a growing consensus among psychoanalysts and psychiatrists that a new kind of patient seems to be presenting himself…The treatment…who doesn’t suffer from the classical conversions symptoms that Freud described or that hysterical, compulsive syndromes that are described in the classic literature, but from a sense of restless dissatisfaction, a sense of meaninglessness, a lack of structure or purpose, boredom. And my contention is that the growing prominence of so-called character disorders or narcissistic disorders in clinical literature reflects an underlying change in the structure of personality. That is, it seems to me that if we can assume that pathology tells us something about normality, that there’s a continuum between the two, the growing prominence of narcissism, and it’s prominent not only in psychiatric literature, but a lot of other places as well, may indicate that there’s been an important shift from a kind of inner-directed personality type to what David Riesman along time ago called an “other-directed type”, but which can also be characterized perhaps with more psychological precision as a narcissistic type.

HEFFNER: Why do you use the phrase “narcissism”? Why do you talk about a “narcissistic type”?

LASCH: Because it seems to me that…Well, why do I talk about it in preference to using the term “other–directed”, for example?

HEFFNER: Um hmm.

LASCH: Which at first…Well, if you take the position that it’s important to achieve as much precision at the psychological level as possible, then the argument, I think, the justification for this, for the use of the concept of narcissism is that we learn more about the psychodynamics that produce this form of personality by focusing on narcissism rather than on a more generalized set of social and cultural characteristics. And in particular, I think, if we learn more we can make better connections between changes in the family structure and changes in personality, because it seems to me that the emergence of a narcissistic pattern is very closely bound up with changes in family life.

HEFFNER: Well, I wonder if I could just read a section from your book in which you talk about the managerial and professional elite as a ruling class, and whether the self-indulgence of a hedonistic society doesn’t best come out there. And then I want to ask you about it. And you say, “As even the rich lose the sense of place and historical continuity the subjective feeling of entitlement which takes inherited advantages for granted gives way to what clinicians call ‘Narcissistic entitlement, grandiose illusions, inner emptiness’”. And there you referred to Riesman’s concept of some years ago. You say, “The advantages the rich confer on their children dwindle down to money alone. As the new elite discard the outlook of the old bourgeois it identifies itself not with the work ethic and the responsibilities of wealth, but with an ethic of leisure, hedonism, and self-fulfillment”. And I gather you feel that those words are terribly important in describing our society. You say, “Although it continues to administer American institutions in the interest of private property, it has replaced character-building with permissiveness, the cure of souls with the cure of the psyche, blind justice with therapeutic justice, philosophy with social science, personal authority with an equally irrational authority of professional experts. It has tempered competition with antagonistic cooperation while abolishing many of the rituals in which aggressive impulses formerly found civilized expression. It has surrounded people with symbolically mediated information and has substituted images of reality for reality itself. Without intending to it has created new forms of illiteracy even in the act of setting up a system of universal education. It has undermined the family while attempting to rescue the family. It has torn away the veil of chivalry that once tempered the exploitation of women, and has brought men and women fact to face as antagonists. It has expropriated the worker’s knowledge of his craft and the mother’s instinct for child-rearing, and has reorganized this knowledge as a body of esoteric law accessible only to the initiated. The new ruling class has elaborated new patterns of dependence as effectively as its forebears eradicated the dependence of the peasant on his lord, the apprentice on his master, and the woman on her man”. And you seem to be talking here about the center falling out of our civilization. All due to what, to an involvement with self as opposed to society?
LASCH: Well, that involvement with self is really the consequence more than the cause of the changes that are discussed in this book. That’s behind my insistence that the problems are more social and political in character than they are personal. To explain briefly what the changes are that are at issue here would be very difficult. But they have a great deal to do, it seems to me, with reorganization of work, with the changes that have been in operation now, which go back to the early part of the century, which have reduced work, and much white-collar work as well as factory work, to a routine, to routines that can be discharged without much thought and which require very little initiative or resourcefulness. And along with that goes an enormous emphasis on the pleasures of consumption which is held up as in a way the antidote to the loss of pride and pleasure and work. Work becomes a means to consumption.

HEFFNER: You say “The pleasures of consumption”.

LASCH: Yeah, which are inherently those of self-gratification, immediate gratification. Ever since the 20s the advertising industry has held up the vision of the kind of consumers’ utopia: Everything is possible, everything is available, all needs can be satisfied in the form of the consumption of commodities.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that that notion participates in pulling the center out of our family life and educational system?

LASCH: Well, it seems, yeah…Well, I think there are connections. First of all, it seems pretty clear that a society which is organized increasingly around consumption rather than work, production, and which has made that the primary good doesn’t have much use for outmoded notions of the dignity of labor or the value of work, the virtue of patient application of the postponement of gratification. It has reversed all of the priorities. And again this is not a recent development, I think. In a way, the narcissistic personality is the embodiment of this kind of perfect consumer, and the end product of a long process of development.

HEFFNER: We’ve never been afraid to indicate that ours was a consumption society or a consuming society. Where then would you see the turnabout? If this notion lies behind, as I suspect you suggest, the disintegration of the sense of responsibility that was basic to family life in the past, the sense of responsibility that was basic to the discipline of a real educational structure and so on, how do we turn that around? You see the bottom falling out or the center falling out. Where in the world would it come about for changing?

LASCH: Well, it may by that – I don’t like to use the word “forces”, the historian’s staple – but it may be that forces are already at work in our society which are going to force us to reconsider some of these issues. I think that in a way you could argue that our society has been based for some time now on the compromise that in exchange for the work that has become less and less satisfying and even meaningless, people have been promised a higher standard of living and high level of consumption. And on the whole, until recently, that compromise has had a good deal of reality. The standard of living has risen; wage levels on the whole have risen too. I’m not sure whether that arrangement is working any longer. And I think that there are pretty clear signs of that, that it isn’t. That all of this, it might be added, was premised, indeed I suppose all of American history in a way has always been premised on the assumption of limitless growth, endless expansion. And it’s becoming pretty clear that that‘s not going to continue. That we’re facing a period of grave contraction, shortages, inflation which is eroding people’s standard of living. So that what you might call the historic compromise, American society may no longer be valid.

HEFFNER: You think the concept of land of plenty has contributed so largely to the development of narcissism?

LASCH: Yes, I think so. I think that narcissism is in a way the final apotheosis of American individualism. It’s a kind of individualism that has turned inward and gone sour.

HEFFNER: Are you literally willing to connect the individualism of the past, the more rugged individual, the more self-reliant individualism of the past with this flabby narcissism that you describe?

LASCH: Well, I don’t want to. On the one hand I think it’s very important to emphasize the contrast between these types for, among other reasons, they emerge clearly as ideal types only in contrast with each other. On the other hand, there is some continuity, I think between the 19th century rugged individualist and the narcissist, even though in some ways the narcissist is the negative, the contradiction of that type of individualist.

HEFFNER: You mean it produced its own destruction?

LASCH: Yeah, that’s what I’m arguing. This personality type is the psychological expression of a culture that is going nowhere and I think senses uneasily that it isn’t going anywhere.

HEFFNER: Would you be willing to posit the notion that inevitably emphasis upon the individual, emphasis upon rugged individualism must lead to a, such a total involvement with satisfaction, instantaneous gratification and satisfaction such as we’ve experienced?

LASCH: Well, I don’t know if I’d want to argue that it inevitably must. That does seem to be the pattern that we find in the history of the last couple of centuries.

HEFFNER: Then what would reverse it? Statism and involvement now with the diminution of the power of the individual?

LASCH: That’s one not very attractive possibility, that these issues of course, go beyond this book and beyond what can be got at through an essentially culturally kind of analysis. But it would seem pretty clear that the enormous problems, economic problems, energy problems that are going to occur that are already upon us are going to require come pretty stringent central controls of one sort or another. And I think the question is whether those controls are going to emerge, to put it in political terms, under right-wing auspices or whether they’re going to come through some genuine democratic process. Or to put it another way, the question is whether those controls are going to be imposed on an unwilling population, in which case that’s the end of democracy, or whether they’re going to be achieved through consent, which means that they have to be decided in a democratic fashion.

HEFFNER: But your assumption is that whatever does happen will come not more from plenty but from deprivation.

LASCH: That’s right. It’ll be a response to contraction, deprivation, scarcity. And also to the decreasing ability of the United States to impose its will on other countries. That’s another fact on which American prosperity has been historically promised, its ability to exploit the rest of the world. And our capacity to do that is diminished.

HEFFNER: Do you see this as impacting upon education and upon family life and upon religion or church or the role of the church in a positive way as it has in a negative way over the past half-century at least? You see building up again of what we once possessed?

LASCH: It’s possible. I think that one of the things that needs to be recovered is a sense of discipline, and again one might post the question as to whether discipline will be imposed or whether it will be rooted in everyday experience. And I would see that, a necessary part of that experience is a satisfying family life. That’s something that has also been more and more difficult, become more and more difficult for people to achieve. That the family is a good example, I think, of the illusory hope of a kind of private haven. The family has commended itself to people as such and it’s becoming pretty clear that the family doesn’t offer that kind of refuge anymore, if it ever did. It’s a very permeable institution. It’s been remolded by institutions, by agencies outside the family.

HEFFNER: Well, you seem to describe in the book and in our discussion a shift from structure in the past, structure in education, structure in the family, structure in our other institutions, breaking down of that structure as we begin to enjoy more and more of our consuming society. And I think it’s fairly easy to see the way in which plenty can reverse the predominance of authority and tradition. It’s harder to see how an absence of plenty and a growing scarcity will reverse that other trend in out other institutions.

LASCH: Yes, it is. And certainly the reversal is not automatic. It’s possible though difficult to imagine exactly what a society would look like in which the debasement of authority and the disintegration of authority continue at the familiar level while on the other hand an authoritarian state emerged at the top. I suppose that the nearest thing I can think of to such a society, which is again I think a possibility, is Huxley’s Brave New World, which combines all of the familiar features of a consumer-oriented, hedonistic, and in some ways permissive society with the most appalling totalitarianism.

HEFFNER: I remember in the new foreword to his book written after the Second World War, the last lines, “You pays your money and you takes your choice”. I wonder whether we’re still in a position in which we can reverse the trends that you’ve taken such pains to describe in The Culture of Narcissism. And I wonder, one hears so many people today, some of those who describe themselves as new conservatives, some of those who don’t have the right to describe themselves with such a term that generally is more intellectually oriented, who talk about a little poverty being a good thing, scarcity being a good thing, will reverse the trend. If there’s less for children to have then they’ll appreciate the traditions of the past. That’s not likely to happen, is it?

LASCH: No, I don’t, I don’t think so. And I think that in any case that kind of conservatism is suspect because while on the one hand it wants to align itself with structure, discipline, and those good values, and is even willing to think that hard times might be…

HEFFNER: Good times.

LASCH: …might be good times. But on the other hand, it’s all for free enterprise and proposes to make no modification in the structure of corporate power, for example, which has a lot to do with the problems at stake.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, that brings me – and we don’t have much time left – it brings me to the real question that I posed to myself as I read the book. Now, is Christopher Lasch – and I know the words “optimist” and “pessimist” are meaningless – but I just wondered whether you weren’t saying, because I tend to think that myself, the game is up, it’s over in terms of that 18th, 19th century conception of the good society, there’s no sense in thinking about reversing it.

LASCH: Well, that would indeed by pessimistic. My grounds for very qualified optimism rest on a belief, first of all, as we’ve discussed, that to some degree certain processes have already or are reversing themselves. The situation is changing and it is changing drastically.

HEFFNER: Energy crisis in fashion?

LASCH: That’s right. And therefore choices, very difficult ones, are going to have to be made. Changes will have to be made. And the qualified optimism rests on the belief that there are after all deeply rooted democratic traditions, traditions of collective self-help in our culture that are not yet played out, and which still constitute resources we can draw on.

HEFFNER: But the discipline that enabled us to survive in the past were the disciplines of family and of other social structures, not that of the state.

LASCH: Well, that’s right. But I might add that not all segments of society I think are equally susceptible to the influences that I’ve describe. I think that to some degree the culture of narcissism is an upper-middle-class culture, or at least that in working-class culture there are stronger countervailing influences. A sense of family which remains, I think, stronger than elsewhere, and even religious institutions which are not intact by any means but which play a larger part in working-class life than middle-class life. I don’t think that our society is uniformly, in other words, in a state of total and irrevocable collapse. I hope that that’s not just wishful thinking.

HEFFNER: In other words, you‘ve been writing about your friends and my friends.

LASCH: Yeah, that’s right, very much.

HEFFNER: Well, I think that what you have written about your friends and my friends have made everyone sit up and take notice, and I must say that I wish there were more time to go on and on about the various ways in which you have described the impact of narcissism on our society. I’m interested thought that at the end you say you’re talking about the upper middle class and not Americans at large.

LASCH: Above all about those people.

HEFFNER: Thank you very much for joining me today, Professor Christopher Lasch, and talking about The Culture of Narcissism.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I do hope that you’ll join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.