Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics
by christopher lasch
w. w. norton, 576 pages, $25

Christopher Lasch has written a “loose, baggy monster” of a hook. He takes on nothing less than “the western human condition,” arguing determinedly and, to my mind, persuasively that the idea of progress has outgrown its time. Lasch even suggests that progress, as the West has encoded it, has more than had its day and there is no due owed it. None at all. Because our political ideologies, left and right, have revolved around the notion of progress like so many moths drawn ineluctably to the flame, they “have exhausted their capacity either to explain events or to inspire men and women to constructive action.” That's his thesis, more or less, and despite considerable meandering through a smorgasbord of thinkers, movements, events, and philosophies, most home-grown and more than a few half-baked, he sustains it or, better put, continually returns to it as his touchstone.

In addition to being unhappy with our continued seduction by progress, Lasch is similarly put off by alternatives or, he would say, pseudo-alternatives to its depredations. His story, then, goes like this. In the eighteenth century, the founders of modern liberalism embraced an argument that posited human wants and needs as infinitely expandable. It followed that “an indefinite expansion of the productive forces” of economic life was needed in order to satisfy and continuously fuel this restless and relentless cycle of needs-creation. This ideology of progress was distinctive, Lasch claims, in exempting the world “from the judgment of time,” leading to an unqualified and, for Lasch, altogether unwarranted confidence that an essentially unlimited way of life could persist undiminished, undamaged, and without generating terrible pressures.

The joint property of various liberalisms and conservatisms since its historic birth, progressivism as ideology has primarily been carried in this century by those on the left—including New Dealers—who valorized a political philosophy of consumerism. Moving from a glorification of producer to consumer was key because, following the nineteenth-century English thinker J. A. Hobson, the conclusion was reached that underconsumption leads to declining investment. No real alternative to laissez-faire celebrations of the untrammeled operations of the market, then, can be found in most left-wing ideologies: both left and right are wedded to the culture of productivity and consumption and both have made their own sordid pact with the demons that threaten to destroy us. These demons, for Lasch, are the vast gaudy, leering manifestations of a democratized consumerism that has come, more and more, to bear “almost the entire weight of our hopes, aspirations, and fears.”

Promoting a brittle presentmindedness, the idea of progress weakens “the inclination to make intelligent provision for the future, and nostalgia, its ideological twin, undermines the ability to make intelligent use of the past” Distinguishing carefully between nostalgia and an appropriately critical historic memory, Lasch laments the ways in which—driven by progress, even driven a bit mad by it—we can do no better than issue a “communitarian counterpoint” to attempt to right the balance and to retain, at least here and there, smidgens of civic virtue. But the game is well nigh lost. Here Lasch would have strengthened his argument had he specified more tightly those arenas within which virtue gets relocated—domesticity, even the self-sacrifice of war. But these can in any case scarcely restore those genuine habits of self-discipline, loyalty, and recognition of limits that progress has nearly obliterated.

Progress has eaten away corrosively at all the frameworks that helped to give coherent form, meaning, and purpose to human existence. The “collapse of legitimate authority,” for example, is one depressing sign of the times. We are no longer able to distinguish dominance and crude “power-over” from authority and this, in turn, leads to cynicism and an explosive politics of resentment. It may seem to be stretching the point to blame progress for all of this, but bear in mind that progress, for Lasch, is that entire cluster of nostrums and notions that forged a celebration of “more” as “better” and “getting” as “good.” Human rights, particularly in the United States, no longer signify “Stop” to the depredations of government so much as “Gimme” to the entitlements that government, construed instrumentally, is expected to proffer.

With the collapse of limits and of legitimate authority, decency gives way. Our way of life has become, Lasch suggests, pervasively unwholesome. We are addicted to and obsessed with “sex, violence, and the pornography of ‘making it.'“ Drugs, “entertainment,” impatience with any restraints, celebration of “non-binding” commitments (which means, in practice, no commitments at all): these and more are the detritus of progress. That and our “third-rate educational system, our third-rate morality, our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong lest we ‘impose' our morality on others and thus invite others to ‘impose' their morality onus, our reluctance to judge or be judged, our indifference to the needs of future generations as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction, and a deteriorating environment; our inhospitable attitude to the newcomers born in our midst, our unstated assumption which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all.” In Lasch's hands, the jeremiad is reborn.

The exhaustion of the progressive tradition, in both its right and leftwing manifestations, betrays itself, Lasch concludes, “in its inability to confront these fundamental questions of modern politics or the equally urgent question of how the living standards of the rich can be extended to the poor on a global scale without putting an unbearable burden on the earth's natural resources.” Progressive ideologies are now little more than wistful and brittle soporifics which, in denying limits or the tragic sense of life, fail to articulate any possibility of genuine political hope. Lasch is especially devastating in his critique of radical chic and other forms of decadent leftism that freely condemn “ways of life of which they know little and to which they feel nothing but contempt from their safe perch.”

Can anything be salvaged from this wreckage? Lasch says there can, but he doesn't really show us how and where we can find ideas, habits, rituals, and ways of being to recuperate—at least not in any sustained way. He speaks of alternatives but then seems to explode rather systematically the language currently available to speak of those alternatives, including the concept of community. Tying that concept to the by-now outmoded and pointless discourse of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Lasch thinks it is too anemic, too sentimental a term.

But I wonder if we must, or can, abandon it altogether. “Community” remains one of the key categories people use to talk about themselves, and whatever depredations may have been visited on the word in intellectual and pseudo-intellectual discourse, it is still a concept through which ordinary people express their aspirations, their hopes, and their fears. On this matter and others, one wants Lasch to say more. But perhaps he holds back out of fear of offering false and illusory hopes. The habit of mind he endorses he calls “moral realism.” He describes this way of thinking as “the understanding that everything has its price,” and he celebrates its respect for limits, its skepticism about progress. He specifies this moral realism as central to the identity of his unlikely heroes, the morally conservative petite bourgeoisie who exemplify a rough-and-ready egalitarianism, a respect for workmanship, and a sense of loyalty. “Whatever can be said against them,” Lasch argues, “small proprietors, artisans, tradesmen, and farmers—more often victims of ‘improvement' than beneficiaries—are unlikely to mistake the promised land of progress for the true and only heaven.”

A sense of limits is the sensibility that pervades this book, and it is a sensibility Lasch seeks to recall and to reinstate for our time. We need to tell an alternative story of America, he would argue, one that moves away from the narrative of progress of the dominant Protestant culture without descending into those blithe and wholly abstract celebrations of “difference” with which we are currently inundated. Lasch seeks not programs but principles; not nostrums but necessity; not causes but character; not rallies but reverence. The world, he says, was “not made solely for human enjoyment”—a genuinely radical proposition in our comfort-seeking time.

A tough-minded Augustinianism pervades this book. Lasch accepts the reality of human limits and of sin, and he sees in the unadorned and giddily optimistic story of progress the ever more destructive outcroppings of Pelagianism run amuck.

Jean Bethke Elshtain is Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is the author, most recently, of Power Trips and Other Journeys (University of Wisconsin Press).