Christopher Lasch

The Pursuit of Progress

VTR Date: February 10, 1991

Guest: Lasch, Christopher


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Christopher Lasch
Title: “The Pursuit of Progress”
VTR: 2/10/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is a most accomplished and prolific social critic whose earlier works, such as The Minimal Self and particularly The Culture of Narcissism have long since established him as a foremost among those who identify what is, in truth, the promise of American life.

Christopher Lasch teaches history at the University of Rochester, and someone has suggested that in his writings about America past and particularly present he seems persistently to reverse the plea of that old Johnny Mercer song to “Ac-cen-tuate the Positive, E-lim-inate the Negative”.

Indeed, his readers may find that observation particularly apt in parsing Professor Lasch’s newest and perhaps most demanding and brilliantly all-encompassing volume of social and cultural criticism, The True and Only Heaven, just published by W. W. Norton. How could it be otherwise when his very first sentences are: “This inquiry began with a deceptively simple question: How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?”

Well, the late, great historian Charles A. Beard noted that all recounted history is an act of faith, so that I would first ask my guest today if the question with which he begins The True and Only Heaven reflects the act of faith that informs his own image of America’s past and present, perhaps even our future, too. Professor Lasch?

Lasch: Hard question because nobody really is comfortable with Beard’s assertion. Now…not even Beard…

Heffner: Are you?

Lasch: No, of course not.

Heffner: Why not?

Lasch: I want to say this is no act of faith, this…this assertion that progress is a delusion rests on unimpeachable evidence, but I can’t quite say that because having gone to school with Charles A. Beard, as it were, I mean that he was my teacher, in a direct sense, I know, like other historians that there is a great deal of truth in his insistence that, that any, any narrative is organized by an initial set of assumptions that is not, can’t be reduced to any simple set of empirical generalizations.

Heffner: Now, after you say that is this an act of faith in any way on your part…”This, I believe, is what others have said”?

Lasch: Well…I hadn’t, as a matter of fact thought much about this issue, at all. I thought that the idea of progress was something that was no longer taken seriously, that had no intellectual respectability. I assumed that the First World War had dealt it a blow from which it had not recovered. And then I was asked to speak at a conference on technology and to give a talk specifically on the status of the idea of progress in our time. And after I began to read I saw that this was not true…that it’s true that the idea of progress had a hard time in the 20s and the immediate aftermath of World War I. Apart from Beard who published vigorous defenses of the idea of progress in the 20s, there weren’t many serious intellectuals, on the contrary. Well, J. M. Bureay’s classic study The Idea of Progress was published right after the war and it was premised, I think, on the assumption that it was possible to write a history of the idea of progress because it was over, because the idea was history, because no one took it seriously. And Beard’s position was very much a minority position at that time. However, after the Second World War, the idea of progress, which you might have expected to make the idea of progress more untenable than ever, made a startling comeback for very interesting reasons. I think in part because it now seemed to be the only antidote to complete despair, but also in part because, after all, devastating as World War II was and, and deeply disturbing as all of its revelations about the capacity of organized…you know, highly civilized societies to perpetrate the mot barbarous things…still the economic boom that followed world War II was absolutely unprecedented. And it was a…not just an American thing, but tremendous period of economic expansion in which all industrial nations were caught up. This initial…this is how I think interesting inquiries often happen. You set out with one set of expectations, and they’re confuted by the evidence that you dig up. It’s sort of unwelcome evidence.

Heffner: Do you think this nation could support…intellectually, emotionally, the idea that progress is no more?

Lasch: Well, what gives me hope is that it can is the existence of an older tradition. Quite an old tradition in our political culture that has always been skeptical of the idea of progress, or as people used to speak in the 19th century, skeptical of the idea of improvement. Now, it was a…again, it was never dominant this tradition, which included some very well known people. I would classify Emerson, for example, in this tradition, in this skeptical tradition, in spite of his tendency at times to identify himself with the Party of Hope, rather than the Party of Memory. Many of the…another thing…let me put it this way…another thing that I learned this time in the course of teaching 19th century history to students, undergraduates, is that the democratic forces in American society in the 19th century…democratic with a small “d”, were not necessarily friends of improvement. We tend to think of…that the more democratic, more committed you are to radical democracy, the most you’re likely to be progressive. But there were not by any means equivalent in the 19th century. In fact, if anything, the reverse…the democratic forces in American society were craftsman, artisans, small businessmen, farmers whose mode of production was in serious jeopardy. Who were…perceived themselves threatened by the tendency towards large scale production. And not only for that reason, but for others as well, were very dubious about the assumption that the general movement of history is always upward and onward.

Heffner: Which, of course, leads me to ask you what I hope you won’t feel is an impertinent question, but why do you write, why do you teach, how can you write, how can you teach if you do not believe in the idea of progress?

Lasch: Because I believe in hope (laughter) as opposed to optimism, a distinction that I’ve…

Heffner: Yes, indeed.

Lasch: …I’ve tried to explain in this, in this book.

Heffner: But with a difference? There is a distinction, but tell me…

Lasch: Oh, there’s a difference. Optimism…I mean the terms don’t mean anything, but the state of mind that they’re meant to capture, that this distinction is meant to capture, is, is a real difference. Optimism, as I call it, is the state of mind of people who believe in progress. It depends on a certain reading of history, on the assumption that no matter what happens…and with minor setbacks, things are going to get better. Hope is the state of mind of people who have…it’s a kind of…it should be thought of, I think…not so much as an assessment of the direction of historical change, as a kind of temperamental quality, almost a character trait. It’s the state of mind of people who believe in the goodness of life, and in some kind of underlying justice in the universe in spite of evidence to the contrary. I mean in spite of all the evidence that would ,that would justify cynicism and despair…so I think of hope as…it’s, it’s…as this description may suggest, it’s a religious quality. It doesn’t need to be attached to any formal creed, but it is the state of mind that I think religious traditions refer to when they talk about faith.

Heffner: If, if we had not just come out of a decade in which the idea of progress was so clearly and so thoroughly identified with material things, would you pick up the cudgels as you have?

Lasch: Yes. For, for this reason…I, I don’t want to argue that it’s only bound up with material things, you’re quite right about the 80s, but I want to…it’s always important, in fact, to confront one’s opponents, to confront ideas you, you don’t like in their most compelling form. So that it’s easy enough to, to indict an ideology in its crudest forms, in this case, the crude materials of the 80s. But historically, the idea of progress which I claim originated in the 18th century, specifically in the 18th century political economy, which ties the increase inhuman wants and tastes to increasing productivity and increasing consumption, and hence, gives the belief in an ever-expanding abundance, an ever-expanding productive machinery, some solid basis in fact.

Heffner: But isn’t…couldn’t one say that it was a bastardization of the idea of progress…

Lasch: Well, but…

Heffner: …of the heavenly city of the 18th…

Lasch: …but I don’t…

Heffner: …century philosophy?

Lasch: …but, I don’t want to argue that this was only a materialistic belief. On the contrary, I mean Adam Smith, who’s quite clear about this makes it explicit that when he talks about productivity, he is also interested in the expansion of human culture that is required to support an increasingly productive system. So that the, this vision of a marvelously productive machine, based on an endlessly expanding demand for what once were luxuries, monopolized by the, by the privileged, these new wants include a taste for, not just material comforts and conveniences,. But tastes that go along with education, with rising levels of taste and so on. So that it, it’s a quite generous belief that has plenty of moral content, as well as material.

Heffner: You say “moral” content.

Lasch: Yeah…I assume that the expansion of ordinary people’s tastes and their capacity to enjoy the finer things of life, I assume that that is a morally…it’s, it’s a sentiment that we would approve of on moral grounds.

Heffner: A “moral” sentiment. But you say “approve of”. You seem in this…

Lasch: Well…

Heffner: …book and others to have related material progress, progress to the degree that it is related to materialism, and otherwise, to a, a diminution of the moral standards.

Lasch: Well, there are two things that give me pause about this imposing body of belief which has been dominant in our culture for a long time. One if the fear that since the whole thing is premised on a seemingly limitless abundance, this premise may be highly questionable in an age when more and more attention has to be paid to ecological limits. I concede that this in itself is a controversial issue and that not everybody agrees about this. I haven’t tried to argue that case, I’ve simply assumed it.

Heffner: But you would, you’ve made the assumption?

Lasch: Ye-ah, yeah. That this can’t go on indefinitely…the attempt to, the democratization of luxury, if you will, has built in limits. Imagine what it would mean to export the American standard of living to the rest of the world. So that’s one reservation. But the other one, perhaps more serious reservation, has to do with the notion of democracy that seems to me to be bound up with the idea of progress. It’s essentially…what, what this assumes is a democracy of consumers, when there’s any democratic content at all, often there isn’t, as in the great…well, as in the decade of the 80s which the democratic content of the progressive vision had sort of receded from view altogether. But insofar as it’s there, what’s, what’s envisioned is a democracy of consumers. The other tradition, and I’m eager to rescue envisions a democracy of citizens and producers…That is, it, it rests on a much more active notion of democracy.

Heffner: How in the world would you rescue that notion?

Lasch: Well, the…many of the values that are associated with that tradition, such sort of rock-bottom beliefs as that people should assume the responsibility for their actions, or a belief that strong families are good things. There…these beliefs are still quite widespread in our society, which gives me some hope that it’s not utterly utopian to think that they might be due for a revival. Then, too, it’s not clear whether the tendency toward large scale production, which is a large part of the story, I think, is likely to continue. On the contrary, what may be happening is not the age of production for mass markets, may be reaching its end, it’s possible that more and more production is going to have to be geared to highly specialized markets for which the old techniques of mass production, “Fordism”, assembly line, where you turn out masses of standardized and uniform products, maybe that is coming to an end. Several, you know, serious economists have argued to this effect. There are parts of the world, there’s a revival of the small scale. Almost artisanal production in Northern Italy, for example, which is highly compatible with the most advanced technology. The recent industrial history of Japan suggests a somewhat similar combination.

Heffner: But you know I had the feeling, and I thought to myself, “My gosh, at last I’m going to have Christopher Lasch at this table”…Having ready you for so many years, “At last I’m going to find someone”, and that seemed to be somewhat verified by my reading of your most recent book, “Someone who’s going to say, ‘look, in a sense’, more than in a sense, ‘it’s really all over, it’s really all over and let’s turn our thinking now to the transvaluation of values. Let’s forget the notion of rescuing the sense of responsibility’, as you identify it, ‘that certainly characterized America at one time’.”

Lasch: Yes.

Heffner: Is it hope? It’s not optimism. (Laughter)

Lasch: No…

Heffner: You…is it simply hope? Is it blind hope?

Lasch: Well, no, no.

Heffner: Is it wishful thinking?

Lasch: No. I certainly hope not. It’s, it’s the responsibility, I think of any intellectual or scholar to resist wishful thinking. No, I don’t think so. And I’ve tried just now to give you some reasons why this doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as it might have seemed as recently as twenty or thirty years ago. One of the things that happened, in fact, in, in the last generation is that there’s large over-arching schemes of historical explanation, Marxism being only one variety, that we all put so much stock in when we were growing up, have been shown to be untenable, and that’s…this book is written in part against the at background, out of that mood, that is the mood of general disenchantment. With, you know, big over-arching schemes of historical explanation which insist that things have to happen in a certain sequence and that certain developments, notably the trend toward larger and larger units of production, larger and larger political units, that those are mo re or less inevitable and nothing can be done, done with them.

Heffner: When you wrote The Culture of Narcissism, the story is that you visited with Jimmy Carter in the White House, and that he misunderstood, that he didn’t fully grasp what it was that you were saying. Now, I’d like to know about that in reference to this…well, I can’t call it optimism, you won’t permit that. To this hopefulness that you just describe. In sense he subscribed to your ideas. In a sense he tried to derive something from them. Where did you diverge?

Lasch: Well, I wanted him to put a more populist construction in his indictment of American consumerism.

Heffner: Is that what the sweater he wore in the television speech…

Lasch: Well, populism is more than a style. (Laughter)

Heffner: Right.

Lasch: There’s got to be some substance, and sure enough, I mean it seems to me, that I, I was right because what offended people so much about the speech…there was a lot of criticism that was simply unfair, but the one point that wasn’t unfair was that people who are themselves hard-pressed, materially, you know, ordinary working people, or middle class people, who didn’t see themselves in 1975 as living high off the hog, to be lectured, seeming to be lectured on their wild, riotous habits of consumption (laughter)…didn’t sit very well. What was needed was a program that called for sacrifices alright, but made it clear that the sacrifices would be distributed in an equitable fashion which meant that…which would mean that those most able to make sacrifices would be the ones on whom the sacrifices fell. That’s what I mean by populism.

Heffner: You put your hope…don’t use the word “faith” again…you put your hope in the resurgence of older American values in that populist approach. Is that fair?

Lasch: Yeah, a resurgence of old-fashioned values, old-fashioned morality. But with a radical edge to it, together with a commitment to radical…to an egalitarian vision of how society ought to be organized.

Heffner: How do you find in a mass society such as our own, with mass media such as the camera staring at us, how do you find the ways and the means for our reordering our values?

Lasch: Well…

Heffner: How do you break out of where we are, in short?

Lasch: …a lot of important political activity still takes place without much reference to the media. It’s not clear that you can…I hope it’s not clear that you can have a politics that simply doesn’t go beyond the media. Political organizations still have to be put together in a very painstaking way by means of local activity and world of mouth communication and that gives me some reason to think that the sort of stifling effect that mass media has on political discussion, their ability to set the public agenda may not be fatal to organizations that are, that want to change the agenda.

Heffner: Professor Lasch, if you were to believe that the grip of the media is too strong…

Lasch: Yes.

Heffner: …for us to accomplish what you’re suggesting is not impossible…if we promised to stay where we are or to move further along exactly the same lines, in our mass society, would you conjure up a different set of wishes for American life? Would you conjure up a different approach that you would advocate?

Lasch: No, I think such a society would be, would be doomed. A society that was committed…

Heffner: Where…

Lasch: …to the same course…

Heffner: Where is it written that our older values are not doomed?

Lasch: Well, they may be doomed, too, but , but our new society, that is the one that is now committed without much reservation to…what is, after all, a very threadbare conception of the good life, ever-increasing abundance, comfort, convenience. I think that society, in an attempt to pursue that vision much further, a vision that, again, is premised on unlimited resources, unlimited capacity, capacity of the earth’s ecology to sustain this kind of production. Almost unlimited American power in the world, those are all, I think, demonstrative untenable assumptions, premises. And an attempt to sustain our present way of life in the face of those tremendous difficulties can only result in disaster I think.

Heffner: You’re a historian. You must be a poet rather than a prophet. You must, at times, take your knowledge of the past and project it into the future. What you just described, is that so unthinkable?

Lasch: No, no, it isn’t. It’s all too thinkable. It’s, it’s a frightening prospect, I think.

Heffner: And then what? Then how do we reach The True and Only Heaven?

Lasch: Well, the point of the title of course is that you mustn’t confuse progress with the true and only heaven. It comes from a story, a wonderful story by Hawthorne, The Celestial Railroad, which is a parody of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Heffner: And typical of our times…we have 30 seconds left…

Lasch: (Laughter)

Heffner: Yeah, but seriously…you’re, you’re…you remain hopeful.

Lasch: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Heffner: Not pessimistic…

Lasch: Yes. Yes, that’s my curious position.

Heffner: I must say that reading Progress and Its Critics: The True and Only Heaven was an extraordinary experience for me, and having you here, Professor Lasch, is too. I know we speak somewhat at cross-purposes, I realize that, but that I think is because I’m even more of a pessimist, as you embrace reality, I’m the pessimist, but think you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

Lasch: You’re welcome. Thanks a lot.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s themes, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.