I don’t remember where I heard about Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, but when I began reading it, I wasn’t sure when it was written. As I started reading, I thought it must have been published post-President-Trump, but getting further into it, a bunch of psychoanalytic framing made it feel a bit more dated (but still very good). It was written in 1979, but feels very appropriate for addressing our predicament today.
If you liked The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, you’ll enjoy this book from last millennium.
Lines like “When politicians and administrators have no other aim than to sell their leadership to the public, they deprive themselves of intelligible standards by which to define the goals of specific policies or to evaluate success or failure.” really strike the same chords I have written about in things like History of the Capital AI & Market Failures in the Attention Economy.
Here are a few of my favorite bits…
Voter apathy is more likely distrust in public leaders who routinely lie to acquire / maintain power…
Such is the view from the top — the despairing view of the future now widely shared by those who govern society, shape public opinion, and supervise the scientific knowledge on which society depends. If on the other hand we ask what the common man thinks about his prospects, we find plenty of evidence to confirm the impression that the modern world faces the future without hope, but we also find another side of the picture, which qualifies that impression and suggests that western civilization may yet generate the moral resources to transcend its present crisis. A pervasive distrust of those in power has made society increasingly difficult to govern, as the governing class repeatedly complains without understanding its own contribution to the difficulty; but this same distrust may furnish the basis of a new capacity for self-government, which would end by doing away with the need that gives rise to a governing class in the first place. What looks to political scientists like voter apathy may represent a healthy skepticism about a political system in which public lying has become endemic and routine. A distrust of experts may help to diminish the dependence on experts that has crippled the capacity for self-help.
Modern bureaucracy has undermined earlier traditions of local action, the revival and extension of which holds out the only hope that a decent society will emerge from the wreckage of capitalism. The inadequacy of solutions dictated from above now forces people to invent solutions from below. Disenchantment with governmental bureaucracies has begun to extend to corporate bureaucracies as well — the real centers of power in contemporary society. In small towns and crowded urban neighborhoods, even in suburbs, men and women have initiated modest experiments in cooperation, designed to defend their rights against the corporations and the state. The “flight from politics,” as it appears to the managerial and political elite, may signify the citizen’s growing unwillingness to take part in the political system as a consumer of prefabricated spectacles. It may signify, in other words, not a retreat from politics at all but the beginnings of a general political revolt.
“Growth” has become “survival” and lost a sense of “progress”
In the same way, bureaucracy has made life predictable and even boring while reviving, in a new form, the war of all against all. Our overorganized society, in which large-scale organizations predominate but have lost the capacity to command allegiance, in some respects more nearly approximates a condition of universal animosity than did the primitive capitalism on which Hobbes modeled his state of nature. Social conditions today encourage a survival mentality, expressed in its crudest form in disaster movies or in fantasies of space travel, which allow vicarious escape from a doomed planet. People no longer dream of overcoming difficulties but merely of surviving them. In business, according to Jennings, “The struggle is to survive emotionally” — to “preserve or enhance one’s identity or ego.” The normative concept of developmental stages promotes a view of life as an obstacle course: the aim is simply to get through the course with a minimum of trouble and pain. The ability to manipulate what Gail Sheehy refers to, using a medical metaphor, as “life-support systems” now appears to represent the highest form of wisdom: the knowledge that gets us through, as she puts it, without panic. Those who master Sheehy’s “no-panic approach to aging” and to the traumas of the life cycle will be able to say, in the words of one of her subjects, “I know I can survive . . . I don’t panic anymore.” This is hardly an exalted form of satisfaction, however. “The current ideology,” Sheehy writes, “seems a mix of personal survivalism, revivalism, and cynicism”; yet her enormously popular guide to the “predictable crises of adult life,” with its superficially optimistic hymn to growth, development, and “self-actualization,” does not challenge this ideology, merely restates it in more “humanistic” form. “Growth” has become a euphemism for survival.
Narcissism as coping:
Narcissism appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with the tensions and anxieties of modern life, and the prevailing social conditions therefore tend to bring out narcissistic traits that are present, in varying degrees, in everyone. These conditions have also transformed the family, which in turn shapes the underlying structure of personality. A society that fears it has no future is not likely to give much attention to the needs of the next generation, and the ever-present sense of historical discontinuity — the blight of our society — falls with particularly devastating effect on the family. The modern parent’s attempt to make children feel loved and wanted does not conceal an underlying coolness — the remoteness of those who have little to pass on to the next generation and who in any case give priority to their own right to self-fulfillment. The combination of emotional detachment with attempts to convince a child of his favored position in the family is a good prescription for a narcissistic personality structure.
Consumer hedonism that emerged from the 1950s:
In the fifties, affluence, leisure, and the “quality of life” loomed as major issues. The welfare state had allegedly eradicated poverty, gross economic inequalities, and the conflicts to which they formerly gave rise. The seeming triumphs of American capitalism left social critics little to worry about except the decline of individualism and the menace of conformity. Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, the salesman who wants no more out of life than to be “well liked,” symbolized the issues that troubled the postwar period. In the seventies, a harsher time, it appears that the prostitute, not the salesman, best exemplifies the qualities indispensable to success in American society. She too sells herself for a living, but her seductiveness hardly signifies a wish to be well liked. She craves admiration but scorns those who provide it and thus derives little gratification from her social successes. She attempts to move others while remaining unmoved herself. The fact that she lives in a milieu of interpersonal relations does not make her a conformist or an “other-directed” type. She remains a loner, dependent on others only as a hawk depends on chickens. She exploits the ethic of pleasure that has replaced the ethic of achievement, but her career more than any other reminds us that contemporary hedonism, of which she is the supreme symbol, originates not in the pursuit of pleasure but in a war of all against all, in which even the most intimate encounters become a form of mutual exploitation.
“The poor have always had to live for the present…”
In some ways middle-class society has become a pale copy of the black ghetto, as the appropriation of its language would lead us to believe. We do not need to minimize the poverty of the ghetto or the suffering inflicted by whites on blacks in order to see that the increasingly dangerous and unpredictable conditions of middle-class life have given rise to similar strategies for survival. Indeed the attraction of black culture for disaffected whites suggests that black culture now speaks to a general condition, the most important feature of which is a widespread loss of confidence in the future. The poor have always had to live for the present, but now a desperate concern for personal survival, sometimes disguised as hedonism, engulfs the middle class as well. Today almost everyone lives in a dangerous world from which there is little escape. International terrorism and blackmail, bombings, and hijackings arbitrarily affect the rich and poor alike. Crime, violence, and gang wars make cities unsafe and threaten to spread to the suburbs. Racial violence on the streets and in the schools creates an atmosphere of chronic tension and threatens to erupt at any time into full-scale racial conflict. Unemployment spreads from the poor to the white-collar class, while inflation eats away the savings of those who hoped to retire in comfort. Much of what is euphemistically known as the middle class, merely because it dresses up to go to work, is now reduced to proletarian conditions of existence. Many white-collar jobs require no more skill and pay even less than blue-collar jobs, conferring little status or security. The propaganda of death and destruction, emanating ceaselessly from the mass media, adds to the prevailing atmosphere of insecurity. Far-flung famines, earthquakes in remote regions, distant wars and uprisings attract the same attention as events closer to home. The impression of arbitrariness in the reporting of disaster reinforces the arbitrary quality of experience itself, and the absence of continuity in the coverage of events, as today’s crisis yields to a new and unrelated crisis tomorrow, adds to the sense of historical discontinuity — the sense of living in a world in which the past holds out no guidance to the present and the future has become completely unpredictable.
Older conceptions of success presupposed a world in rapid motion, in which fortunes were rapidly won and lost and new opportunities unfolded every day. Yet they also presupposed a certain stability, a future that bore some recognizable resemblance to the present and the past. The growth of bureaucracy, the cult of consumption with its immediate gratifications, but above all the severance of the sense of historical continuity have transformed the Protestant ethic while carrying the underlying principles of capitalist society to their logical conclusion. The pursuit of self-interest, formerly identified with the rational pursuit of gain and the accumulation of wealth, has become a search for pleasure and psychic survival. Social conditions now approximate the vision of republican society conceived by the Marquis de Sade at the very outset of the republican epoch. In many ways the most farsighted and certainly the most disturbing of the prophets of revolutionary individualism, Sade defended unlimited self-indulgence as the logical culmination of the revolution in property relations — the only way to attain revolutionary brotherhood in its purest form. By regressing in his writings to the most primitive level of fantasy, Sade uncannily glimpsed the whole subsequent development of personal life under capitalism, ending not in revolutionary brotherhood but in a society of siblings that has outlived and repudiated its revolutionary origins.
Sade imagined a sexual utopia in which everyone has the right to everyone else, where human beings, reduced to their sexual organs, become absolutely anonymous and interchangeable. His ideal society thus reaffirmed the capitalist principle that human beings are ultimately reducible to interchangeable objects. It also incorporated and carried to a surprising new conclusion Hobbes’s discovery that the destruction of paternalism and the subordination of all social relations to the market had stripped away the remaining restraints and the mitigating illusions from the war of all against all. In the resulting state of organized anarchy, as Sade was the first to realize, pleasure becomes life’s only business — pleasure, however, that is indistinguishable from rape, murder, unbridled aggression. In a society that has reduced reason to mere calculation, reason can impose no limits on the pursuit of pleasure — on the immediate gratification of every desire no matter how perverse, insane, criminal, or merely immoral. For the standards that would condemn crime or cruelty derive from religion, compassion, or the kind of reason that rejects purely instrumental applications; and none of these outmoded forms of thought or feeling has any logical place in a society based on commodity production. In his misogyny, Sade perceived that bourgeois enlightenment, carried to its logical conclusions, condemned even the sentimental cult of womanhood and the family, which the bourgeoisie itself had carried to unprecedented extremes.
The advertising industry: “disguising the freedom to consume as genuine autonomy.”
*The servant of the status quo, advertising has nevertheless identified itself with a sweeping change in values, a “revolution in manners and morals” that began in the early years of the twentieth century and has continued until the present. The demands of the mass-consumption economy have made the work ethic obsolete even for workers. Formerly the guardians of public health and morality urged the worker to labor as a moral obligation; now they teach him to labor so that he can partake of the fruits of consumption. In the nineteenth century, elites alone obeyed the laws of fashion, exchanging old possessions for new ones for no other reason than that they had gone out of style. Economic orthodoxy condemned the rest of society to a life of drudgery and mere subsistence. The mass production of luxury items now extends aristocratic habits to the masses. The apparatus of mass promotion attacks ideologies based on the postponement of gratification; it allies itself with sexual “revolution”; it sides or seems to side the women against male oppression and with the young against the authority of their elders. The logic of demand creation requires that women smoke and drink in public, move about freely, and assert their right to happiness instead of living for others. The advertising industry thus encourages the pseudo-emancipation of women, flattering them with its insinuating reminder, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and disguising the freedom to consume as genuine autonomy. Similarly it flatters and glorifies youth in the hope of elevating young people to the status of full-fledged consumers in their own right, each with a telephone, a television set, and a hi-fi in his own room. The “education” of the masses has altered the balance of forces within the family, weakening the authority of the husband in relation to the wife and parents in relation to their children. It emancipates women and children from patriarchal authority, however, only to subject them to the new paternalism of the advertising industry, the industrial corporation, and the state.**
“POLITICS AS SPECTACLE”
Systems analysts and “social accountants” take it as an article of faith that “with the growth of the complexity of society,” as one of them, Albert Biderman, once put it, “immediate experience with its events plays an increasingly smaller role as a source of information and basis of judgment in contrast to symbolically mediated information about these events.” But the substitution of symbolically mediated information for immediate experience — of pseudo-events for real events — has not made government more rational and efficient, as both the technocrats and their critics assume. On the contrary, it has given rise to a pervasive air of unreality, which ultimately befuddles the decision makers themselves. The contagion of unintelligibility spreads through all levels of government. It is not merely that propagandists fall victim to their own propaganda; the problem goes deeper. When politicians and administrators have no other aim than to sell their leadership to the public, they deprive themselves of intelligible standards by which to define the goals of specific policies or to evaluate success or failure.
“Corporate gamesmen” and “easygoing oppression…”`
In the hierarchies of work and power, as in the family, the decline of authority does not lead to the collapse of social constraints. It merely deprives those constraints of a rational basis. Just as the parent’s failure to administer just punishment to the child undermines the child’s self-esteem rather than strengthening it, so the corruptibility of public authorities — their acquiescence in minor forms of wrongdoing — reminds the subordinate of his subordination by making him dependent on the indulgence of those above him. The new-style bureaucrat, whose “ideology and character support hierarchy even though he is neither paternalistic nor authoritarian,” as Michael Maccoby puts it in his study of the corporate “gamesman,” no longer orders his inferiors around; but he has discovered subtler means of keeping them in their place. Even though his underlings often realize that they have been “conned, pushed around, and manipulated,” they find it hard to resist such easygoing oppression. The diffusion of responsibility in large organizations, moreover, enables the modern manager to delegate discipline to others, to blame unpopular decisions on the company in general, and thus to preserve his standing as a friendly adviser to those beneath him. Yet his entire demeanor conveys to them that he remains a winner in a game most of them are destined to lose.
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