These are trying times for the would-be dissident. Has any group of people ever been as atomized and alienated from their culture than the people of today? It would be hard to argue otherwise. Every day more and more young men and women feel like strangers in their own homelands and look for a thousand different escapes. There are a number of political explanations for it, but to understand it culturally one would benefit from reading Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism.
Lasch has become a bit of a forgotten figure of the 20th century commentariat. Despite being a neo-Marxist, meaning he incorporated elements of Freudianism and critical theory into his analysis, Lasch often took up heterodox positions in his critiques of capitalist culture that often caused him to find common ground with social conservatives. Whether this was from his own ethnically American sensibilities (compared to those of the Central European psychoanalytic refugees that made up critical theory), his Old Left pedigree, or simply being unable to lie to himself as he saw the cultural changes that America was undergoing in the name of Progress, Lasch was able to develop a devastating critique of the post-war excesses that had quickly begun to define America that many mistakenly took as a simple attack on the Me Decade that was the 1970s. Far from being some dated grumblings of an old fuddy-duddy, Lasch’s examination of the narcissism that now pervades American culture have remained a prescient warning of how this culture developed the psychic and spiritual conditions we all find ourselves living in now, and how its ugliness spreads into every element of our lived experiences. Forty years later, it serves as a call to action to live within truth under the lies of narcissism’s tyranny of the self.
Over the course of ten chapters, Lasch pulls apart a different aspect of the culture that has come under this culture of narcissism and its effects on the people who have been infected by its malaise. Before analyzing its litany of sins he provides us with a state of the nation’s soul:
“Bourgeois society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas. It has lost both the capacity and the will to confront the difficulties that threaten to overwhelm it. The political crisis of capitalism reflects a general crisis of western culture, which reveals itself in a pervasive despair of understanding the course of modern history or of subjecting it to rational direction.”
Little has changed in forty years; such is the stasis of liberal society.
What the culture of narcissism is, as Lasch describes throughout the book, is a culture that is utterly disconnected from its past, has no sense of the future, and is completely focused on the self to the detriment of the family, the community, the culture, and the political. What Lasch describes is a society full of the kind of unpatriotic men that Sir Walter Scott describes in “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”, wretches “concentrated all in self”. Lasch sees this culture manifest in every aspect now of popular American society, from the largely New York Jewish novelists who dominated the post-war literary scene who had turned inward to the role advertising played in propagandizing and shaping the consumer’s sense of self to the flight from feeling present in the sexual revolution and the collapsing relationships between men and women. It’s on this last point, and in other works, that Lasch drew the ire of some feminists as his critiques were pointed squarely at the prophets of progress, the feminist movement being one of its largest pioneers in how it reshaped the role of women as capitalist workers and its damaging effect on the family structure. Some of the other elements of this new society that Lasch critiqued would also be explored in how they were created by Freud and his successors in Adam Curtis’ phenomenal documentary The Century of the Self; ironic given that Lasch is a Freudian and applies that lens frequently throughout The Culture of Narcissism.
This component of Lasch’s analysis is actually the weakest part of his work and while a few of the insights end up being somewhat interesting, the Freudian critique is the weakest part of the work and makes it feel dated and at times impenetrable to the layman. The work succeeds in spite of this because the truth of his analysis maintains an ominous weight that keeps it grounded in the reality that many people are waking up to. Where people will find the most fertile ground of his writings, and the most relevance to the political and cultural problems they face, will likely be his sections on radical liberalism and irony.
Narcissism, as Lasch describes it, has to be understood as more than just some form of extreme selfishness. It’s a pathological condition, one that we’ve discovered has very real political implications. In his explanation of the narcissistic, he describes the patient as such:
Often these patients suffer from hypochondria and complain of a sense of inner emptiness. At the same time they entertain fantasies of omnipotence and a strong belief in their right to exploit others and be gratified. Archaic, punitive, and sadistic elements predominate in the superegos of these patients, and they conform to social rules more out of fear of punishment than from a sense of guilt. They experience their own needs and appetites, suffused with rage, as deeply dangerous, and they throw up defenses that are as primitive as the desires they seek to stifle.
This profile is the unmistakable visage of the social climbing, sexual predatory, and oversocialized character of the average journofa who is on the constant prowl for a new victim to punish for not conforming to the culture of narcissism’s new social rules. When one looks at the lives of these people, one often gets the sense you are dealing with a people who count their lives by cents-per-words, the status of their connections, and the number of recent orgasms they’ve had. You get the sense you’re being hunted by a hungry ghost, the bloated spirits of Buddhism that have necks too small to swallow food and who thirst for a nourishing life they cannot have.
Lasch then goes describes how these conditions under capitalism shape narcissism into a social coping mechanism people retreat to in order to deal with its oppressive atmosphere of alienation and atomization. What Lasch describes becomes unmistakably the kind of conditions that shaped both the Millennials and the Zoomers, the generations that grew up with the broadest sense of “no future” as every prospect began to look increasingly distant. As Lasch describes it:
“Narcissism appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with tension 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 effects this would have can be most felt in how people of this new age approach sexuality and the intersection it now has with individualism and radical liberalism. Sex, completely unchained from its procreative purpose, becomes an end to itself and becomes the only political issue people then end up fighting for as the politics of the self take precedent over the politics of the material. Lasch zeroes in on the Marquis de Sade as the purest representation of this in his radical liberalism, as once all the sexual barriers are broken down the commune of cummies takes precedence as everyone now becomes available to everyone else, and it is expected everyone else follows these new mores.
Lasch is right to see the Marquis de Sade as the patron saint of our age and the man who most embodies are culture’s deification of the individual within republican values. Sade, for those unaware, helped incite the storming of the Bastille ten days before it occurred. He was not in the Bastille when the July 14th storming occurred however, but Sade’s presence permeates in the French Revolution. He was freed by the Revolution, advocated for direct democracy in the National Convention, did guard duty for the Revolution, and eulogized Marat after his assassination.
Jacques Lacan, the influential Freudian philosopher, saw him as the counterpart to Kant. Simone de Beauvoir and other existentialists saw him as the embodiment of the most radical doctrines in individual freedom. So when Lasch views Sade, he sees Sade’s reduction of sexuality of everyone belonging to everyone as the key. This is so clearly seen in our culture where zero value is placed on chastity and sexual restraint. Lasch notes in his work that our way of speaking has been reduced to the ghetto language of violent sexuality, and that goes hand-in-hand with this. The dirtiest word in our culture is incel.
The endpoint of liberalism is inversion. The values radical liberals most cherish are almost always an inversion of something that is valued by any normal person. There’s a deep-seated misanthropy in this, and so they hate democracy, a problem that Lasch also analyzed in his work The Revolt of the Elites. The liberal is a democrat until he actually encounters how the normal person thinks and votes. Once they see this, the liberal changes their view of democracy. Democracy is always in danger. Democracy must always be prepped. Democracy has to be preserved from people voting anti-democratically.
This is in the inversion and the misanthropy that goes to the heart of it all. If Sade had seen what the real results of direct democracy would have created, he would have desperately clamored to have his aristocratic status restored so that he could prep the people for democracy. In the end radical liberalism does not result in liberation but in men and women resembling each other as they submit to and for the pleasures of others to a perverted aristocracy.
Where Lasch cuts the deepest however is in his analysis of the ironic parts of our culture as the right is suffused with so much irony. When we speak of irony, what we mean is the non-committal detachment from culture and politics that on its service appears to simply be highlighting and mocking the absurdities and pretensions of liberal capitalist society but in effect becomes an identity for people to hide what they really believe or that they simply believe in nothing at all. Irony is a coping mechanism, something Lewis Hyde explained in his essay “Alcohol and Poetry”:
“Irony only has emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage. This is why it is so tiresome. People who have found a route to power based on their misery–who don’t want to give it up though it would free them–become ironic.”
Lasch goes much deeper than Hyde in his approach to the ironic aspects of the culture of narcissism, and those are insights that are imperative for anyone who hates the present order of things need to consider. For Lasch, it goes even deeper than a coping mechanism of the miserable. It becomes illustrative of the performative parts of a society that is increasingly inaccessible in its politics, art, religion, and culture to the average person. There is no longer any sense of immediacy for a person and they increasingly begin to objectify themselves as reality becomes illusory. There becomes no sense of unity, no past or future, and the best that any person can begin to hope for is performing some kind of surrogate togetherness in whatever kind of consumption or entertainment or political theater that they can still stomach. Writing on what Lasch calls “the banality of pseudo-self-awareness”, he states:
“Reality thus presents itself, to laymen and “scientists” alike, as an impenetrable network of social relations–as “role playing,” the “presentation of self in everyday life.” To the performing self, the only reality is the identity he can construct out of materials furnished by advertising and mass culture, themes of popular film and fiction, and fragments torn from a vast range of cultural traditions, all of them equally contemporaneous to the contemporary mind.”
Irony simply isn’t going to save us. And there’s a very real danger in irony in the way it effects relationships and emotions. Under liberal capitalism’s culture of narcissism we have seen identity broken into a thousand splinters that people desperately grasp onto for the clout of its uniqueness or the prestige of an imagined persecuted, sharpening it into a weapon to attack illusory oppressors. There’s another terrifying aspect to this though and it’s one that crops up constantly among the schizophrenic right-wing who has no shortage of enemies but prefers to attack anyone that’s nearby. This is what Lasch refers to as the flight from feeling and it goes hand-in-hand with the detachment that irony engenders in people.
This is the most significant part of Lasch’s work as there is no right-wing movement. It doesn’t exist. To the extent that anything does, you have a few single issue organizations, Conservative Inc and toady organizations like TPUSA who reify liberal capitalism, and the Extremely Online Right. There is no actual movement in the latter, the vast majority being struggling proletariat who are constantly seeking some kind of breath of fresh air from the cultural sludge they’re constantly drowning in. The Extremely Online Right, for whom being ironic is a constantly tantalizing hope, are often knee-deep in struggles of their own and that struggle is real. Many of them are damaged or forced to have to deal with the wrecks of society that wash up on their shores. For many of them, they approach politics as a surrogate activity to deal with this in the slim hope something they do might matter. The truth is though, many on the right have been sickened with a flight from feeling and deal with this by engaging in destructive behavior that either attacks themselves or those nearby. As Lasch describes this phenomenon:
“All these strategies of accommodation derive their emotional energy from an impulse much more prevalent than feminism: the flight from feeling. For many reasons, personal relations have become increasingly risky–most obviously, because they no longer carry any assurance of permanence…Sexual separatism is only one of many strategies for controlling or escaping from strong feeling. Many prefer the escape of drugs, which dissolve anger and desire in a glow of good feeling and create the illusion of intense experience without emotion. Others simply undertake to live alone, repudiating connections with either sex. The reported increase in single-member household undoubtedly reflects a new taste for personal independence, but it also expresses a revulsion against close emotional attachments of any kind. The rising rate of suicide…represents the “ultimate numbness.””
The lesson to take from all of this is that any movement that wishes to oppose the system has to be one that lives in truth, meaning, and feeling. It must reject irony and it must reject the ridicule that the dirty word ‘love’ now invites. It might seem like a cop-out, a cliché, to try and represent the first step as being one that is simply about living better but the present state of things does not change because you have a witty judgment about it. If you believe you are a dissident, then you need to live and act like one. If you want to be a fascist, you have to be a fascist over your own life. To not do otherwise is to simply be absorbed completely into liberal capitalism’s culture of narcissism. To not do otherwise is to live in perpetual bad faith with yourself and with God. Love, honor, and brother are words that will need to be restored to their full meaning.
There is no better time than now for Lasch to become relevant again. The Culture of Narcissism is more than a devastating critique of the detritus that we’ve been sifting through for the last four decades. Its immediacy and its penetrating insight serves as a constant reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun and that liberal capitalism’s war on humanity is an attack on the human psyche and soul, and must be treated as such.