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Authors: Louis Menand

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This does not mean that Lasch was proposing a resurrection of the populist political and economic program (though his lengthy and often quarrelsome elaboration of that program sometimes made it appear otherwise). As he conceded, much of populist economic theory—with its hatred of creditors and landlords, its monetary gimmicks and paper money schemes, its call for a return to small-scale production—was anachronistic even in the nineteenth century. Many populist political convictions are similarly outdated: the belief that armed conflict breeds virtue in the citizenry, for example, surely died in the Battle of the Somme. Lasch was not suggesting that all the facts of modern history could be repealed, or that someday we might all become yeoman farmers, with our ancestral rifles hanging over the fireplace—though he would perhaps have liked us to think more respectfully of yeoman farmers.
The real argument of his book was a more philosophical one, having to do with the juxtaposition of populist economic theory, such as it is, with the tradition of moral criticism Lasch found in Edwards, Emerson, Carlyle, James, Niebuhr, and others. His point seemed to be that we need a political economy that matches the moral economy (as Lasch believed those writers understood it) of the universe. The universe, in this conception, is a place in which we earn our way, and do so in part by recognizing that there are limits to how far we can go and forces militating against us which we cannot control. Character is built by striving to perform the role fate has assigned us, and a society that recognized this truth would be one which understood that conditions a modern person finds oppressive—obedience to family discipline, acceptance of the restrictions of place and class, military conscription, demeaning or unremunerative work—are really the conditions that make a full and independent life possible. The reason populists give for agitating against capitalists, creditors, and landlords is that those are classes of people who profit without producing. In doing so, they violate the principles of an economics based on a labor theory of
value—the foundation of not only populist and Marxist but even liberal economic theory in the nineteenth century. More than that, though, they violate the universe’s moral principle of just compensation. You must give something to get something back. Only if we are producers will we deserve to consume. And to be a “producer” in the larger, moral sense means to feel oneself responsible for all of what one does in one’s life.
This is not an unattractive philosophical conception. But what happens when it touches ground in the thought and practice of a particular “populist” writer? Consider the case of Georges Sorel, whose militant version of socialist syndicalism appealed to Lasch because of its rejection of both liberal and Marxist utopianism. Among the less attractive features of Sorel’s thought, Lasch noted in passing, is “probably” anti-Semitism.
But a man who compared France’s struggle against the Jews to America’s against the “Yellow Peril,” who wrote that “the French should defend their state, their customs, and their ideas against the Jewish invaders” and that “the so-called excesses of the Bolsheviks were due to the Jewish elements that had penetrated the movement,” and who referred, in two of the works Lasch cited,
Reflections on Violence
The Illusion of Progress
, to “big Jew bankers,” is not just “probably” an anti-Semite.
Nor was Sorel’s anti-Semitism simply a detachable element of his general outlook. It was the obvious, if not the inevitable, consequence of an economic theory that demonized financiers and creditors.
And this side of populist thought is of a paranoid piece throughout: the dislike of professional armies, as an instance of specialization that deprives citizens of the virtue-making activity of war; the dislike of those who lend the state the money to pay its armies, and who therefore supposedly find it in their interest to foment war between states; the defense of local religious and ethnic communities—these are all classic sources of anti-Semitism. They are also among the sources of fascism, particularly in France. “The intellectual father of fascism,” one French admirer called Sorel in the 1920S;
and although Lasch noted Sorel’s close association with the Action Française and his enthusiastically reciprocated admiration
for Mussolini (later complemented by an equally fervent admiration for Lenin), he did not explain why this aspect of Sorel’s thought, of which he plainly did not approve, should be regarded as irrelevant to the aspects he had praised. And the same is true of the racism, jingoism, and demagoguery associated with populist political movements generally: Lasch acknowledged these tendencies, but asked his readers to ignore them—occasionally by the discreditable tactic of throwing their suspicions back in their faces. He addressed the question of Sorel’s connections to fascism, for instance, simply by remarking that “liberals’ obsession with fascism … leads them to see ‘fascist tendencies’ or ‘proto-fascism’ in all opinions unsympathetic to liberalism.”
This may or may not be true, but it is not an argument.
The True and Only Heaven
was, one assumes, intended to provoke many such disputes about the selective readings and unorthodox interpretations of various figures. But there are two larger criticisms that I think Lasch invited, and they have application not only to that book, but to his work generally. Of the many peculiarities about the moral tradition Lasch constructed in
The True and Only Heaven
, the most astonishing is the omission of Freud—a writer who had played an important part in Lasch’s earlier thinking. For surely the Freudian notion of psychic economy involves exactly the principle of compensation, and exactly the tragic sense of life, that Lasch so passionately admired in thinkers of far smaller intellectual stature. But a writer like Freud could not figure in Lasch’s account, and the reason is that Freud has already been accepted as one of the heroes of modern culture. And this is also why the writers who do have a prominent place in Lasch’s tradition are either minor and eccentric figures, like Brownson and George, or major ones who are supposed to have been misread by everyone else, like Emerson and Niebuhr. For to have conceded that the “populist” moral conception is simply a limited and somewhat cranky version of a moral conception we find everywhere in modern culture would mean conceding that values modernity is supposed to have made obsolete are actually to be found at the very heart of modern life.
If, as Lasch suggested in his work on the family, there is a “deal”
on which modern liberal society was founded, it is that we shall have the freedom to criticize the conditions in which we live. This bargain has given us an enormous body of literary and intellectual work, fiercely protected by liberal institutions, whose moral intention is to complicate all the issues that traditional liberal theory makes too simple. Lionel Trilling wrote a famous book to make this point; but
The Liberal Imagination
was not mentioned by Lasch. He seemed, and not only on the evidence of
The True and Only Heaven
, simply deaf to literature. “Misgivings were destined to be confined to a shadowy half-life on the fringes of debate,”
he wrote of the spread of specialization and the division of labor in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. It is as though Wordsworth, Dickens, and Thoreau had never written, or their books never been read.
At the core of Lasch’s condemnation of liberalism is the familiar charge that liberalism is effectively without content—that “liberal man” is a wind-up contraption that chases its own short-term interests, and the liberal state a night watchman that only keeps the streets clean and the fights fair (or, at least, “efficient”). But liberalism does have a moral conception of the self, which is expressed in the political doctrine of rights. There is virtually no mention of rights in Lasch’s attack on the elements of the modern liberal outlook, or in his analysis, in
The True and Only Heaven
, of particular political events, such as the disputes about busing and abortion. Elsewhere, he linked modern feminism’s attachment to medical technology to the eighteenth-century idea of individual rights: the progressive mentality, he thought, regards access to reproductive technology as an enhancement of the woman’s right to choose whether to bear children.
And it is clear that, like many other critics of liberalism, he wanted to replace talk of rights in our political vocabulary with talk of duties—talk of what we owe to our society and to each other, rather than what is owed to us. “Rights-bearers,” he claimed, near the end of his life, in a symposium on the subject, “are regarded as autonomous individuals, and that is precisely the style of thinking we are trying to avoid.”
This seems to me to be an insufficient account of rights. It is insufficient historically because the recognition of individual rights
figures crucially in the liberal idea of what counts as progress. And it is insufficient morally, as well, since our notion of exactly what a right entails—to speak freely, or to bear arms, or to travel or own property—and under what circumstances it must give way to other claims, is the subject of continual debate. The history of United States Supreme Court decisions alone is ample evidence of the intellectual and moral complexity of the idea of rights. It is true that from one perspective rights appear to uphold private interests against public goods—to protect my desire to publish obscene material, for example, against the community’s desire to maintain standards of good taste. But from another perspective, a system of enumerated rights against the state, such as the Bill of Rights provides, is precisely an acknowledgment of the general claim of society as a whole against the individual. This was the view taken by some liberal contemporaries of Lasch’s turn-of-the-century populists: that it is only because we recognize the legitimacy of society’s claims generally that we undertake to respect the need for people to be exempted from those claims in specified types of behavior.
Because the subject is dismissed altogether from
The True and Only Heaven
, rights have no place in the book’s account of the Southern civil rights movement, and this seems a telling omission. For what saves Lasch’s populist tradition from being merely a bouquet of the values left strewn in the wake of progress is his contention that the populist spirit continues to have a life in real communities. Since the South has been the breeding ground for many populist politicians in this century, and since the South was itself a classic example of antiliberal “particularism”—“the preindustrial society par excellence,” as Lasch once called it
—one would have expected him to give special attention to the character of Southern life. But prominent Southern populists go almost unmentioned in
The True and Only Heaven
. Huey Long’s name, for example, appears only twice, in lists of the sort of people liberals unfairly associate with populism. George Wallace turns up more often; but although Lasch seemed to disapprove of the politics of resentment Wallace practiced during his days as a segregationist, his remarks on Wallace were otherwise not unkind, and he noted
Wallace’s eventual acceptance of racial integration approvingly as testimony to the ability of one local ethnic constituency—lower-middle-class Southern whites—to respond to a moral appeal from another.
It is true that the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56, which is where the modern civil rights movement began, is one of the noblest political events in American history, and that it was made possible by the religious faith of a lower-class ethnic community—Southern blacks—essentially untouched by legalistic ways of thinking. But it is not true, as Lasch suggested it is, that the boycotters’ victory, or the victories in other civil rights campaigns in the South, came about because lower-middle-class Southern whites understood the justice of the blacks’ moral appeal. Southern whites did not take a notable part in the Montgomery protest except to oppose it and to humiliate and harass its participants. The protest succeeded because on the day a local judge issued the injunction that would have broken the boycott, the Supreme Court ruled that the black citizens of Montgomery had the right to sit where they chose on city buses. There was no “local solution” to the problem of racial segregation in the South because the principle at stake was not a local principle.
Lasch was always at his most acerbic in his criticism of middle-class liberals who impose the values of their culture on lower-middle-class communities and families, and he had much to say in his discussion of subjects like the busing controversy and the abortion debate about the attitude of moral superiority some liberals assume toward the less educated people who oppose them. There is indeed some ugliness in the middle-class attitudes he described; but to take note of the ugliness does not dispose of the matter.
Back in the 1960s, a group of filmmakers, Drew Associates, was invited by the Kennedy administration to film its enforcement of the court-ordered desegregation of the University of Alabama—the incident that culminated in George Wallace’s famous “stand in the schoolhouse door.” The film that was produced,
Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment,
covers events both at the White House and in Alabama. It is sometimes shown on public television, and
it dramatizes the cultural friction Lasch writes about. Robert Kennedy, in the White House, and his deputy, Nicholas DeB. Katzenbach, in Alabama—Ivy League liberals, supremely assured of their virtue—are seen discussing their strategy for handling Wallace as though Wallace were an inconvenient road hazard, a man, in their calculus, of no moral account whatever. And Wallace is seen arriving at the university and accepting expressions of support from the people waiting to greet him with the easy familiarity of a man who knows them and is part of a genuine community.
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