The Minimal Self, by Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times.
by Christopher Lasch.
Norton. 317 pp. $16.95.
There is much to admire in the work of Christopher Lasch. He has constructed wonderfully exact criticisms of the presumptions and intrusions of those agencies of social control which are called, in the current jargon, the human services. He has penetrated their “mask of rectitude” and measured the costs of their benevolence in the loss of the individual’s confidence in his own judgment and of his freedom to determine for himself the substance of his private life. A man of the Left, Lasch has distanced himself from many of the follies of the contemporary Left. He has, for instance, defended the family against its present-day detractors and he has ridiculed assaults on high culture and rational inquiry. Such heterodoxies have made him frequently the object of those venomous and unrestrained attacks which the Left reserves for its wayward own. Moreover, he is—and today these virtues can no longer be taken for granted—an intellectually honest writer of marked civility.
Lasch’s new book, The Minimal Self, is closely related to his previous work, The Culture of Narcissism, which was a surprise best-seller and the recipient of an extraordinary presidential endorsement when it was recommended to a national television audience in Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” address. Both books are marked by Lasch’s immersion in psychoanalytic thought. What distinguishes Lasch from others who have used psychoanalysis to inform their social analysis and criticism is that he has not relied on those psychoanalytic thinkers, such as Reich, Fromm, and Freud himself, whose work incorporates a social theory. He has turned, instead, to recent technical, clinical works whose focus is personality development. Such works rarely reflect the broad cultural interests which were so characteristic of the first generations of psychoanalysts.
In particular, Lasch has taken a clinical entity, the narcissistic personality disorder, as virtually a cultural type. The narcissistic personality, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, has simultaneously an “exaggerated sense of self-importance” and very little self-esteem. These are self-absorbed people, but the self that absorbs them is painfully weak and fragile. They are harried by unrealistic expectations and driven to search for substitutes for those satisfactions which reality can never provide. Our society, Lasch believes, tends to produce this disorder and, more importantly, affects all of us with its traits.
In The Minimal Self, Lasch provides a much fuller account than he did in The Culture of Narcissism of the psychoanalytic principle upon which he bases his critique of American social life. (It is America about which Lasch is always writing.) And more so than in his previous book, Lasch seeks to answer the question, what are the social conditions which generate these masses of impoverished selves in lifelong pursuit of a chimera? The roots of our woes, he finds, are to be discovered in the world of mass consumption, mass production, and technology forced upon us by the directors of advanced industrial capitalism.
Unfortunately, Lasch’s social analysis is not as careful or well-thought-out as are his psychoanalytically-based arguments. The Minimal Self begins with an account of the destructiveness of 20th-century life which culminates in a chapter on the Holocaust. Lasch respects the integrity of this history and understands the danger of reducing Auschwitz to a metaphor. But he believes that the Holocaust exemplifies the dangers of modern society:
But if it is unwise and even morally obtuse to make facile comparisons, it seems equally unwise to ignore the growing destructiveness in modern society as a whole or the possibility that all these atrocities—however incommensurable in their origins and specific effects—prefigure even more radical atrocities, including, perhaps, the annihilation of humanity itself.
Lasch includes in his list of atrocities not only those perpetrated by the Nazis but those perpetrated by Stalin and the Khmer Rouge. This might be considered something of an advance, since Lasch’s social criticism here and in his earlier books has been directed against capitalist societies which, he has charged, have brought upon us the ills of our time. But Stalin was not a capitalist and Pol Pot did not preside over a modern society. Frequently, when reading Lasch, one must wonder whether the social phenomena and historical events he describes are peculiar to capitalist societies or are common to modern social life. Or are they linked only by the fact that they happened to occur in the 20th century? The point is that Lasch does not support his own position. He has yet to show that what he criticizes is the result of the specific social system epitomized by the United States.
Let me carry the argument a step forward. It is difficult to recover the initial reactions of those who lived through the calamities of our century. But many of them sensed not that something new and monstrous but that something old and monstrous was occurring, and the fact that it was old added to its horror. George Orwell began his essay “England Your England,” written during the Battle of Britain, with the line, “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead trying to kill me.” It was not the acts alone but that they were being done by civilized men that provoked horror and wonder.
Orwell’s contemporary, the English philosopher R.G. Collingwood, made that horror and wonder the central problem of his New Leviathan, a now largely forgotten work of political theory which was “written in great part . . . during the bombardment of London.” Collingwood had brooded over the century’s calamitous course of events since his service in World War I. As he describes it:
I realized, dimly and incompletely, what the situation was that had been confronting us; namely what I should now describe as a new form of barbarism.
He defined barbarism as:
Hostility toward civilization: the effort, conscious or unconscious, to become less civilized than you are, either in general or in some special way, and, so far as in you lies, to promote a similar change in others.
For such writers, and for large numbers of their readers, the destructiveness of the 20th century was not a logical outcome of modern society but a betrayal of the civilized values which it incorporated. Those generations may have been naive to believe in the first place that they had left mass destruction behind them, but that they so believed is testimony to what they thought was the real nature of the modern world.
The social and political institutions of totalitarianism are new. But unrestrained mass slaughter does not belong only to our age. Thucydides tells us how, after the fall of Plataea, each of its citizens was asked by the Spartan conquerors, “Have you done anything to help the Spartans and their allies in the war?” After the inevitable answer, “No,” the Plataean was put to death. The women were taken to be slaves and the city razed to the ground. To balance the account, Thucydides later tells of the Athenian treatment of Melos. All the men of military age were put to death and the women and children reduced to slavery. From another historical tradition, in I Samuel 22, we are given an example of a dreadful practice when Doeg the Edomite smites Nob, the city of the priests, and puts every living thing to death, “men and women, children and babes in arms, oxen, asses, and sheep.”
It is difficult to find a time and a place where such things did not happen. And we find that people manage to get the gruesome job done even without the benefit of modern technology. But if mass murder is not new, what may be new is that we have come to think that such acts are wrong. I am not suggesting that moderns have become, in their conduct, morally superior to their ancestors, rather that we insist upon giving moral content to acts that were until recently regarded as the way things are.
Perhaps I am wrong in this matter. Nevertheless, it points to an obligation which Lasch has skirted in his steadily growing body of indictments of modern society, namely, the obligation to show clearly and persuasively that the institutions and practices he condemns are indeed distinctively modern and are precisely the causes of the evils that he perceives in our society.
Nowhere is such a showing more needed than in Lasch’s critique of technology. It is in this critique that his quiet Marxism makes itself felt. Technology, according to Lasch, is the mode of production which determines all social relations. Technology robs people of their freedom and self-confidence as they become dependent upon complex mechanisms of whose fundamental structures they remain ignorant. Technology concentrates power in the hands of those who control its production and use. Technology, which makes people less independent, paradoxically and insidiously suggests to them unrealistic possibilities of mastery of their environment. Finally, adaptation to technology sets the stage for that mode of deference to experts which enables agencies of social service and social control to expand their power.
As I sit here happily staring at the screen of my word processor while listening to Bach played through my stereo, it is hard not to yield to the temptation to defend technology against Lasch’s criticisms. Harder is it still to resist when I summon up images of how my grandparents lived. But it is more important to bring out a paradox in Lasch’s own thought.
Lasch argues eloquently that:
The crowning indictment of industrial civilization is not merely that it has ravaged nature but that it has undermined confidence in the continuity and permanence of the man-made world by surrounding us with disposable goods and with fantastic images of commodities.
If this is so, then is it any less so that men need some measure of continuity and permanence in their social relations? Lasch’s radical criticisms imply both the need and the capacity to make changes in the fundamentals of our social life. One does not have to be inflexibly conservative to wonder what happens to people’s sense of the world and of themselves when radical social experimentation leads them to regard their basic social arrangements as disposable. Surely one of the things that gave people that independence and confidence in their own judgment that Lasch cherishes was that, with time and experience, they grew to know the ways of the world; they came to know what was done and what was not done. Clearly, however, as social change becomes more frequent and cuts more deeply, one ceases to move through a world whose boundaries are familiar.
Lasch writes: “It is essential to question the boundless confidence in human powers that acknowledges no limits, which finds its ultimate expression in the technology of nuclear warfare.” But where are the bounds of Lasch’s own confidence in our ability to transform the fabric of our social life while at the same time containing and limiting the destructive and unforeseen consequences of our experimentation? Few today perpetuate the 19th-century conviction that there is a technological solution to every human problem. Technology, like most things humans do, solves some problems, creates some, and leaves many untouched. But what many today persist in believing is that there is a social solution to every problem, and only ignorance or malice prevents us from enacting it. Lasch is a thoughtful, reflective, serious man who wishes better for mankind, but so are many of the reformers and planners who have been the objects of his severest criticisms. Like them, he has not paused to ask, what is it we can and cannot do and what are the consequences for human freedom of the policies we propose?