As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Kyle Nicholas looks at Christopher Lasch’s “Liberalism and Civic Virtue” from Telos 88 (Summer 1991).
Christopher Lasch’s “Liberalism and Civic Virtue,” from Telos 88 (Summer 1991), seeks to gain a better understanding of the internal contradictions of liberalism in one of its most optimistic moments. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western economic and political liberalism stood as the last-remaining major ideology of the twentieth century. Amidst the euphoric optimism surrounding the “end of history,” Lasch looks at the challenges that liberalism, with no major competitors on the world stage, poses to itself rather than those posed to it from the outside; for it might just be that liberalism itself is decaying like other major twentieth-century ideologies, though this process is merely delayed.
According to Lasch, speculating as to what should be done with regard to contemporary liberalism—whether it should be replaced, rescued, or simply tolerated—without “a better understanding of exactly what is happening to our political traditions and why” (59) is futile. This understanding is what Lasch seeks to tease out more fully.
For Lasch, the liberal order, even at its most optimistic, is “far from secure.” Even as it has “triumphed” over Communism one can see its fragility “exposed more clearly than ever before, nowhere more than in the U.S.” (58): drugs, crime, gang wars, collapsing school systems, declining political participation, and a host of other issues plagued the United States in one of its finest hours—not to mention the huge migration to the West of newcomers who are simply funneled into the ever-growing army of “homeless, unemployed, illiterate, drug-ridden, derelict, and effectively-disenfranchised.” For Lasch, this can be attributed to two central features that pervade liberalism’s ideological structure to the very core: first, liberalism’s commitment to progress; and second, its belief that the state can “dispense with civic virtue.”
First, progress, predicated on unlimited economic growth, has driven the West to increasingly bureaucratize control over nature and human relationships. The belief that every person in the world should maintain a lifestyle equivalent with the consumption of Western upper classes is beginning to clash with the limited ecological resources required for this globalized dream. Seeking a “steady growth of consumer demand,” the West has developed over-managed private and public sectors that destroy trust, drain constructive energies from workers, and “drain resources away from more constructive investments” (61). These factors threaten the liberal state from the inside and lead to “large-scale production and the centralization of economic and political power.”
Lasch, following Ivan Illich, believes that progress is always progress and freedom for a few coupled with a more general uprooting and chaotic frenzy for the majority. The irony of Lasch’s argument may be glimpsed if we dig a little bit under the similarly optimistic “sharing economy” that has emerged today. Many hail services such as Uber, Amazon Mechanical Turk, or sites such as Airbnb or VRBO as the epitome of the anti-bureaucratic; many of those among today’s younger generations see these services as the main suppliers of freedom and individuality in modern society. Yet we can see the way in which political liberalization, predicated on growth, convenience, and choice, gives way to increasingly virtualized and atomized institutions that help to centralize both economic and political power. Through outlets of speech such as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, and service-sector innovations like Uber, Turk, and Airbnb, the current generation has never felt more free, and yet this freedom comes at the cost of less economic and political control, which are being ceded to the companies that host their speech, extract their labor, and open private rooms for their spontaneous weekend trips. In other words, the economic and political progress of major technology companies will be paid for by the uprooting and chaotic frenzy of society under the guise of “progress” and “freedom.”
The second feature of liberalism that Lasch cites is the belief that public performance that creates a good society does not require civic virtue, but rather—as Bernard De Mandeville labeled it—that private vices produce public benefits. The liberal order, both political and economic, is predicated on balancing of vice with vice, aimed at producing public virtue, and thus works actively against individual virtue and civic engagement. This has also led to increased bureaucratization and control even as people feel freer than ever to live their own private lives. Lasch points out that those such as Milton Friedman—who himself acknowledges that society requires a “minimum degree of literacy and knowledge . . . [and] widespread acceptance of some common set of values” (61)—massively fail to account for the depth of our own ties within society that produce a sense of public obligation.
Instead, schooling that should happen at home or in the neighborhood streets, and policing that a healthy society would intrinsically do itself through informal associations, are relegated to professional areas and people: more counselors, more regulators, more police, more security guards, etc. A society that pursues this path forgets that “a society in working order has to be largely self-policing and to a considerable extent self-schooling as well” (65). And a society that structures itself upon pure external justice or the balancing of vice with vice, dispensing with the necessity of civic virtue, forgets precisely this point. Thus in the United States conservatives argue for less regulation economically, liberals for less regulation sexually and culturally, and consequently both push society further into a downward spiral of external regulation, centralization, and bureaucratization necessary to protect people from one another as social obligation is stripped away.
Lasch’s constructive proposal to liberalism’s incoherence comes from the finest threads of the populist tradition. Unfortunately for the United States, the only largely populist movements since the publication of Lasch’s article have been the Tea Party and Donald Trump. Lasch would surely have denounced these movements vehemently, as their frenetic pursuits of economic liberalization, foreign interventionism, and individualism only further the need for a messy, bureaucratic state to uphold the purely contractual society that inevitably results. Lasch’s populism is better represented in the “subtreasury system proposed by farmers in the 1880s and 1890s” (67). Not only did this movement propose an alternative to the welfare state in support of farmer’s cooperatives, but also, as Michelle Alexander has shown, the movement contained within itself the seeds of a potentially different story of post-slavery racial relations in the United States through a “multiracial alliance of poor people.” Neither happened, however, and not only is the welfare state perpetuated by both conservatives and liberals in United States, all in the name of investing in “progress,” but a racialized caste system has been perpetuated in which white elites perpetually drive the wedge of racism between members of poor and working-class movements.
Lasch’s populism, in contrast, is a populism that stands against “racism, anti-Semitism, nativism, [and] anti-intellectualism,” and for an appreciation of the positive aspects of the populist tradition: “its appreciation of the moral value of honest work, its respect for competence, its egalitarian opposition to entrenched privilege, its refusal to be impressed by the jargon of experts, its insistence on plain speech and on holding people accountable for their actions” (68). Maybe Lasch’s civic populism can offer a vocabulary to those struggling to find a new way beyond right and left in a deeply unequal society that masquerades as “classless,” a deeply racialized society that masquerades as “post-racial,” and an abusive and exploitative society that masquerades as “politically correct.”