Progressivism, Punk Rock & Christopher Lasch
Limits and hope. That's how Christopher Lasch, the genius social historian and cultural critic, once summed up his philosophy: limits and hope.
Lasch is best remembered for The Culture of Narcissism, the 1979 book that diagnosed the destructive effect that both liberalism and consumer capitalism had on the family and fundamental human institutions. But perhaps his best book is The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, which was published in 1991 -- 20 years ago now.
The True and Only Heaven is over 530 pages -- before the footnotes -- and while it shouldn't be too oversimplified, its central themes so accurately diagnoses the progressive psychosis that entangles the Western world that one can only describe the experience as enlightenment. To read The True and Only Heaven is to gain understanding of the traps of both liberalism and conservatism.
Lasch's arguments can get involved, but the basic idea is this: both liberalism and conservatism are failed ideologies because they both offer variations of the same delusion. While liberals believe that happiness lies in ever-expanding rights, total sexual freedom, and the eradication of tradition, conservatives claim that if taxes are cut low enough consumption will increase and the economy will expand indefinitely. Ultimately, everyone -- or at least most people -- will be rich. Both arguments stem from a faith in progress.
But the faith in progress is a fairly recent idea -- as Lasch notes, the idea that societies move towards perfection would have been considered bizarre to the ancients. Some people have suggested that Christianity is responsible for the dogma of progressivism; after all, it is part of Christian theology that we are moving towards the day when Christ will return. But Lasch points out that the best Christian thinkers knew that entire epochs and empires could rise and fall before the return of the Lord.
"As far as I can see, the distinction between victors and vanquished has not the slightest importance for security, for moral standards, or even for human dignity," St. Augustine wrote after the fall of Rome. "As far as this mortal life is concerned, which ends after a few days' course, what does it matter under whose rule man lives, being so soon to die, provided that the rulers do not force him to do impious and wicked acts?"
For the past 40 years, liberals have been increasingly demanding that the American people do impious and wicked acts. And they have been doing so in the name of progressivism. The universe if on an inexorable march towards, well, something, and only the reactionary will resist.
Lasch claims that progressives are not utopians, that they believe more in steady progress. I disagree. I believe that, at least among some liberals, there is a narcissistic utopianism fueled by rage. For over 200 years America has been on a course of expanding rights, scientific progress, and acceptance of what was once considered sexual deviancy. It has now become dogma among the left that this journey will continue, must continue -- no matter if the fight against racism sours into patronizing affirmative action, if the fight for gay rights means shuttering Catholic adoption agencies, and if entitlements collapse the economy.
We simply cannot go back. To do so means that the neanderthals win. It means we do not get to live in the world where there is not male and female, where blacks are carried around on feathered chariots (preferably held aloft by Republicans), and where the state takes as much of our money as it wants to provide abortion on demand for everyone, no questions asked.
If this dystopia is depressing, the conservative response is also wanting. As Lasch noted, it is also a denomination in the Church of Progressivism. If we can only get the government to lower taxes enough, everyone will benefit. If we rely on the market for all social services, people will make far more money than if the government doles it out. There is nothing unholy or even sad about cars and highways expanding further and further into the countryside. It can only be good for the economy if every last inch of green space is paved over.
But even the creation of this ideal world would leave people feeling empty. "If humanity thrives on peace and prosperity," Lasch wrote, "it also needs an occasional taste of battle. Men and women need to believe that 'life is a critical affair,' in Richard Niebuhr's words." That won't come from building more houses or passing universal health care. Lasch is very critical of Ronald Reagan, whose famed optimism was far different from hope. Optimism is a kind of childish belief in the progressive vision. Hope is the faith that truth and justice will ultimately win out no matter what happens -- even if the United States should fall.
At the time I was delving back into Lasch, I also picked up a copy of the new book Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind. It is a beautiful volume that tells the story of American punk rock, with a special emphasis on Seattle. It is full of wonderful pictures and artifacts, from the covers of classic punk records like Husker Du's Zen Arcade to flyers and guitars the bands used.
In the 1980s punk rock and new wave music spoke to me in a way religion didn't, despite my years of Catholic schooling, and reading Lasch reminded me of why. Punk rejected the Church of Progress. Punk dressed ratty and played loud, rejecting hippy utopianism and 1970s soft and worthless musical expertise. It was funny, it was real, and it declared, as the Sex Pistols put it, "no future for you." It had the taste of battle on its tongue.
The musical revolution it brought us can still be felt in the more vital contemporary forms of rock and roll -- music that preaches limits. And hope.