When I was studying photography in the late eighties, the one author we were constantly urged to read was Christopher Lasch. Most notably, required reading was Lasch’s 1979 The Culture of Narcissism and 1984’s The Minimal Self. I read both books, and even have my own copy of The Minimal Self still on my book shelves. Recently I flicked through the pages of my copy of The Minimal Self and was intrigued to see that I’d underlined pages all over the place in pencil. I say intrigued, because at 19 I know for a fact that I could barely have understood anything of what I was reading.
In my recent reading Lasch’s name has popped up a few times, so I decided I might try and read him again, some eighteen years later. I’m so glad I did. The Revolt of the Elites and The Betrayal of Democracy seems to be 13 essays published variously in the early nineties and collected in one book. It doesn’t so much focus on one theme, as more generally discuss the topics of culture, politics, religion, economics and of course our elite class.
Lasch you might describe as a conservative, but even that is probably not accurate. Highly critical of both left (state welfare) and right (free markets) ideologies, he shows how frivolous our political dialogue (if you could call it that) has become, with both parties entrenched in their own mind set. What has been lost is any sort of real public dialogue. Instead we have a culture of therapy, of feeling good no matter what, without shame or restraints. Religion is completely misunderstood by its critics, claims Lasch, whose philosophies have nothing as good to replace it.
Lasch describes our political argument between left and right thus:
‘The old dispute between left and right has exhausted its capacity to clarify issues and to provide a reliable map of reality. In some quarters the very idea of reality has come into question, perhaps because the talking classes inhabit an artificial world in which simulations of reality replace the thing itself.’
When discussing the elites, Lasch says that they (and I guess, in a global sense, you could describe our information economy in such a way, thus lumping many of our workers into this category) are completely disconnected from the realities of day to day life. More to the point, we simply don’t make anything anymore, we just borrow money from overseas and consume using our credit cards.
Here’s a good quote:
‘The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life – hence their feeble attempt to compensate by embracing a strenuous regime of gratuitous exercise. Their only relation to productive labour is that of consumers. They have no experience of making anything substantial or enduring. They live in a world of abstractions, a simulated world that consists of computerised models of reality – "hyper reality", as it has been called – as distinguished from the palpable, immediate, physical reality inhabited world of ordinary men and women.’
As Camille Paglia said recently, highly complex societies like ours will be most vulnerable in the future. Look what happened with hurricane Katrina. Even the richest country in the world could not properly help its citizens.
Another quote I liked, described what the true nature of democracy should be:
‘Luxury is morally repugnant, and its incompatibility with democratic ideals, moreover, has been consistently recognised in the traditions that shape our political culture.’
How much I agree with that quote. What Lasch is saying in this book is that democracies must have active participation from their citizens if it is to have any real meaning. That participation could simply be in the form of public dialogue – discussing a subject with your neighbour for instance. Currently, our dialogue seems to be run by a media with a highly concentrated ownership.
This is the sort of book that will shake you down to your very core, and challenge all of your political assumptions. I haven’t read something on contemporary politics so deeply thoughtful in quite a while. I’m now looking forward to re-reading some of those other books.