George Scialabba wishes he could be as calmly appalled about our historical moment as Richard Rorty, but Christopher Lasch keeps haranguing him, shouting from an artisan commune on the Other Side that it is worse—much worse—than Bin Laden, Bush, and Jon and Kate plus Eight all rolled into one. Scialabba has been writing wittily and vexingly about modernity and its discontents for decades. And in What Are Intellectuals Good For?, a collection of his review essays, he demonstrates his astonishing erudition in considering and citing many thinkers besides Lasch and Rorty.
Yet although there are writers he praises more than Lasch (he calls Randolph Bourne, Noam Chomsky, and Dwight Macdonald the three greatest American political writers of the 20th century), there are none that disturb and move him the way the late historian does. And there are none he more unconditionally admires than Rorty whom he calls “an (perhaps the) exemplary contemporary intellectual” (WAIGF, p.28).
Rorty and Lasch are the large thinkers who shadow Scialabba’s considerations of modernity. The contrast between the two couldn’t be starker. You can find a few affinities: for example, interest in the work of Dewey and James (although they take different things from them). But on the big questions, Lasch and Rorty stand miles apart. Rorty thinks the last 250 years or so in the North America and much of Europe have been a period of evolving progress, a vast mitigation against cruelty and sadism, even allowing for every war and other form of inhumanity; Lasch thinks that we’re going in the wrong direction: destroying communities; creating hollowed out individuals, lacking autonomy, vulnerable to consumer blandishments, oscillating between rage and fear; abdicating familial authority to faceless professional “experts”, and eviscerating any vestiges of local autonomy and worker skills in favor of giant state and corporate bureaucracies; Rorty thinks that the continued capacity for people to individuate themselves is one of the great benefits of modernity and that a fetishizing of identity politics endangers what he called in one of his final essays (a misguided disagreement with Nancy Fraser), a “diversity of self-creating individuals.” Lasch worries about identity politics because it threatens older, white ethnic forms of homogeneous community he traces back to the 19th century. Rorty sees very little value in religion, and potentially great danger in politically reactionary expressions of it like the Christian Right. He would reluctantly sideline Dr. King from the game of historical agency if he could bench Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, too. Lasch believes that to describe religious fundamentalism as a “reactionary movement bent on reversing all of the progressive measures of the past three decades” (roughly Rorty’s view) is to “caricature” it (The Revolt of the Elites, p. 215). The final sentence of Lasch’s final book, The Revolt of the Elites assures us, that despite the contempt of secular elites, religion will be with us for a long time to come (246). Rorty viewed his own class position as a great boon, and felt it was the obligation of left leaning intellectuals like himself to do their best to defend the rights of the less fortunate. Lasch—somehow exempting himself—took Robert Reich’s famous designation of the new class as “symbol analysts” as an excuse to excoriate the same as secular, cosmopolitan, hyper-individuated, unpatriotic, and not all that talented when you come right down to it. Until his death, Rorty was a great supporter of the actually existing American labor movement. He spoke and wrote on its behalf, and taught its evolution in the 20th century because—to use that pervasive Rortyean word—he found it the most useful avenue through which non-elite Americans might actually raise their standard of living, ensure that their workplaces were safer and healthier, and enjoy a modest bit more of leisure. Lasch, the self-appointed champion of the non-elites, judged modern unions, the institutional expression of working class political and economic power, as “conservative” (The True and Only Heaven, p. 209) and thus disappointing. But although Scialabba argues that Lasch “is less interested in historiographical virtuosity than in civic virtue,” he stops his analysis of the labor movement in the mid 19th century.
If that isn’t enough, these guys didn’t think much of each others work either. Not surprisingly, Lasch pretty much thought Rorty was a glib pseudo-cosmopolitan, happy to lounge around in private clubs chatting with his egghead friends while a fatuous, multi-ethnic bazaar goes on all about them destroying any possibility of common culture or values (The Revolt of the Elites, p. 127-28). For his part, Rorty thought Lasch to be enormously overrated, and couldn’t understand why his work had attracted an ardent following. He wrote a scathing review essay about Lasch, for the New Yorker in 1995, which after labeling Lasch, who had died a year earlier, nostalgic, inchoate, and, essentially in search of moral regeneration rather than practical political reform, was at its most generous in seeing Lasch in twilight as a gloom and doomster cross between Jonathan Edwards and Martin Heidegger.
In 1996, I spent a day and an evening with Rorty at the University of Virginia, speaking to one of his graduate classes, among other things. Most interestingly, we had about three hours alone. In a conversation that ranged widely, and included discussions of many of his intellectual peers—Jameson, Habermas, Eagleton (who happened to be giving a talk at the University that night)—Lasch’s was the only name that ruffled Rorty’s otherwise unfailingly bemused tone. Rorty spoke of him in the way that you tell friends in a bar about the meeting you finally have with the new girl/boy friend your best pal had been bending your ear about for weeks—s/he’s so hot, so smart, so funny, I just can’t wait to introduce her/him to you. Then you meet this divine creature and….huh??? Not hot, not smart, not funny. “His supporters talk about him [Lasch] as if he’s got the Answer or something,” Rorty said to me. “I just don’t understand what the big deal is about this guy.”
What does Scialabba see in Lasch that Rorty doesn’t? And what might a reader find attractive about Scialabba’s Lasch? For one thing, Scialabba does Lasch, at least “late Lasch,” better than Lasch (The early Lasch, writing essays about Mabel Dodge’s literary salons and other episodes in the history of the American Left, remains quite rich and—key word—circumscribed.) You really don’t have to read Lasch’s long, anti-modernist tract, The True and Only Heaven (1991) after you’ve read Scialabba’s masterfully compressed summation and analysis of it in this book. Pages 167-168 in Scialabba’s book, in which he channels Lasch channeling Adam Smith and other great thinkers of the Enlightenment, distills Lasch’s long argument and digressions to its essence. In short, secularization, the division of labor, the championing of individuation leads to mobility, intellectual freedom, scientific invention, material progress (good), but also destruction of community, worker alienation, contempt for natural world, and economic instability (bad). Alas, Scialabba does Lasch just a little too well, and isn’t sufficiently critical of the book, or of its successor, The Revolt of the Elites. I think Scialabba’s enters deeply, brilliantly into Lasch’s world, but that this is a world he should extricate himself from as soon as possible. In order to demonstrate that, I will have to return to that world—one we have very surely lost—and also to the more congenial world of Richard Rorty.
One of Lasch’s original contributions to the discussion of modernity is to augment what we might call the School of Delusional Historical Agency. The True and Only Heaven reads like a companion volume to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, written by Marcus’s older brother who is suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder: the secret strain of liberation is there—ziging and zagging thru the centuries—if you just have the right guide to help you find it. There’s been a lot of searching for the “real” progressive agent going on since the sixties, in both world historical and mundane versions—everything from Marcuse first hoping that students might overcome one dimensionality and then his upholding the utopian power of bourgeois art in Counterrevolution and Revolt to Mark Penn’s soccer moms, with everything from Shulamith Firestone’s feminist utopian seizing of the “means of reproduction” and the Progressive Labor Party’s simulacrum of the white working class in between.
Lasch thinks he’s found transformative agents, too. Not the decadent post sixties types, of course. No, more creatively, he finds his agents among “Artisans against Innovation” as he titled one of the sections in The True and Only Heaven (p.212). We’re talking the Lynn, MA shoemakers of the 1830s, for example, although Lasch gets us all the way up to the Knights of Labor, (who actually aren’t really artisans, but pretty much everybody but bankers and lawyers) who rose and fell in a dizzying two year period in the mid 1880s. Think pride in one’s craft, owning one’s own small shop, manly virtues of independence and self-sufficiency. Then, as the artisans get rolled over by changes in the structure of capitalism—the capitalists deskill them, as Harry Braverman told us all—Lasch sees inspiration in the Populists of the 1890s. All of this is accompanied by an accomplished review of the relevant historical literature. The stuff about “artisan republicanism” was a big deal in American historiography in the 1970s, but if you don’t know it, several pages of Lasch or just one paragraph of Scialabba will serve you well.
There is a substantive and conceptual problem here, however. The substantive problem is that all of these people are dead. Thus they are inadequate agents to carry forward a critique against modernity. The substantive problem is linked to the conceptual one. Scialabba allows that those readers who aren’t professional historians may wonder whether Lasch gets the history right. Well, he gets the historiography right, which is as close as we can get to getting the history right. The problem is that the historiography is as dead as the Lynn shoemakers. The historians of these movements give them an encomium, and then whisk them into the dustbin of history—Lawrence Goodwyn, the great historian of Populism upon which Lasch relies, says our chance for real democracy, pretty much ended in 1896. D’oh! To invert the old joke about asking directions from the taciturn New Englander: “You can’t get from there to here.” It’s not merely Lasch’s agents, but the historical link between them and today’s non-elites that has disappeared.
Because all of his hardy “Artisans against Innovation,” (which would be an SNL joke title if people still knew what artisans were) plus the populists, plus the virtuous small “producers” have been wiped out by the early part of the 20th century, and because these folks were all proud of their skills and because they were ethnically homogeneous, Lasch can’t explain how the hell millions of unskilled, ethnically heterogeneous workers formed the CIO in the 1930s—and with it the backbone of the American middle class for the next two generations.
Nor is he even interested in the question. His analysis of working class history stops in the 1890s. The auto workers of River Rouge didn’t own their own tools and command their own shops nor did the longshoremen in San Francisco, the department stores clerks and hotel maids in New York City, the tireworkers of Akron or the truck drivers in Minneapolis. They were a jumble of ethnicities, including, sometimes, African Americans and represented both genders. Indeed, Lasch’s skilled heroes often had contempt for their co-workers and insisted that these unskilled brethren of “inferior” races could not do what these workers, in fact, ultimately did—organize themselves into the most powerful labor movement the country has ever seen, before or since.
And if Lasch had known or cared about this historiography, he would also understand that the newly emergent popular culture of the 1930s—radio, movies, promises of the “American dream” in advertising—actually helped bond workers from previously antagonistic ethnic communities together. The great depression savaged these communities economically; popular culture, with its promise of abundance for all, brought them together in a searing demand for just that. Perhaps Lasch missed Lizabeth Cohen’s, Making a New Deal (1990) at the time he was finishing The True and Only Heaven, published a mere six months later. But her seminal work, on the relationship between class consciousness and popular culture among Chicago’s industrial workers, as well of that of other 20th century labor historians, had broken through by the time he published his final collection of essays three years later.
So Lasch ignores a 20th century activist working class who helped create what economists call the “great compression”, the greatest sustained, middle class growth in human history, one that sharply mitigated the inequality of wealth and income that prevailed before the Great Depression. Perhaps the UAW, back in the day, however, helped too many members’ kids go to college—where they’d only end up as vapid “symbol analysts” anyway. Lasch opposes this kind of the class mobility—it drains the working class of leadership (this belies the desires of every worker I’ve ever met for their children). So, skipping to the 1970s, he is left with the unedifying and absurd task of defending the anti-busing whites in Boston as an example of an organic community besieged by a combination of elite, liberal imperialists and their black stooges. Lasch is so caught up in his fantasy of a white, non-elite, ideal type that his earnest sentences can make you laugh out loud. “Liberals were predisposed to see nothing but racial prejudice in the antibusing movement, but the movement did very little to correct this misunderstanding.” (emphasis added, TTAOH, p.501). Hmm, hard to see why given that, as Lasch concedes a few sentences later, the favorite slogan of the movement was, “Bus the niggers back to Africa!” (ibid).
I confess this section of The True and Only Heaven has always shocked me. It reads to me as almost a parody of the out of touch academic huddled in his archive relying on the sturdy accounts of the period recorded by participants and other writers. I read Common Ground too, but I also lived in the “white” part of Dorchester, one of the sections of Boston affected by busing, during part of this period. A black church, which unfortunately found itself on the wrong side of Dorchester Avenue, was spray painted with “KKK”, swastikas, and “NIGGER!” Teenage boys routinely shouted “nigger” at blacks they saw come into the white areas. A black man was beaten to death at the Shawmut subway stop which I regularly took to work. Busing was a bad deal for everybody—these were all poor people, and all of their schools were terrible. But Lasch often wrote as if he never actually met anybody who wasn’t from a middle class background, had never seen first hand or even had explained to him genuine, ugly racist or misogynist rage. It’s as if his understanding of homogeneous community life derived solely from his hyper articulate freshman roommate at Harvard, Reading, PA’s John Updike. This is the most pernicious section of the book, and Scialabba should have pounded Lasch hard over it and similar remarks which essentially “priced in” racism in Boston and elsewhere in “middle America” as a reasonable cost to be paid to retain the neo-populist strains of resistance purportedly represented by these ethnic non-elites.
So why does Scialabba let Lasch off the hook? Perhaps because he seems drawn most to writers and thinkers whom Sartre might have called the “unsalvageable”, after Hugo, the disillusioned leftist who goes down in a hale of Stalinist bullets at the end of Dirty Hands while shouting that he is “unsalvageable” (as opposed to those The Party cynically deems “salvageable” for its own instrumental purposes). Time and again, he praises those whom their contemporaries often showered with contempt and who carried on without the encomiums and honorifics of the establishment: the deformed polymath, Randolph Bourne, who challenged the greatest liberal intellectuals of his day, Lippmann and Dewey, over the greatest issue of the day, American entry into World War I; the endlessly idiosyncratic Dwight Macdonald; Chomsky, moonlighting as anti-imperialist scourge, erased, Trotsky like, from the NYRB, after already changing 20th century thought in another life; the brilliantly alienated Vivian Gornick; the cranky right wing farmer classicist Victor David Hanson; The screwball, promiscuous anti-modernist (Foucault with charm), Pier Paolo Pasolini; The sui generis Norman Mailer, in a cameo throughout the book, that “banker going ape” running thru the National Guard during the Pentagon demonstration in October, 1967; the untenurable Russell Jacoby. Lasch would have been appalled by rent boy crazy Pasolini. But, in Scialabba’s eyes, they both raised hell and pissed the right people off, so welcome aboard.
The writers he has the most scorn for are those who are most “respected” at the time he reviewed their work. He sees Edward Said as a pet of the liberal ruling class—the poster child for repressive tolerance. He can barely stand his persona and can stand his work even less (but look at the early essays on Conrad, George!); He savages Martha Nussbaum’s defense of the liberal arts and tellingly accuses her of sounding like the Chairman of the NEH. Scialabba’s essay about Nussbaum and Victor David Hanson is extraordinarily revealing. As pompous as he finds the academic superstar Nussbaum, he couldn’t be more delighted with the self-taught sixth generation small farmer, Hanson. Scialabba compares some of Hanson’s work to the best of Lasch and Wendell Berry as a keen diagnosis of “contemporary cultural weightlessness.” But Hanson does more than evoke Lasch. He is the last Laschian—the late 20th century embodiment of Lasch’s small‘d’ democratic, anti-modernist “producers.” And thus, to Scialabba, his work calls forth “the highwater mark of Democratic Republicanism in modern history…..” Unfortunately, like almost all the contemporary non-elites that Lasch writes about with sympathy, Hanson’s politics are grotesquely anti-liberal. Positing a choice between the cosmopolitanism represented by Nussbaum and the “agrarian populism” of Hanson, Scialabba remarkably chooses the reactionary eloquence of Hanson. (Agrarian Populism—in 1999, the time the review was written? Scialabba insists that Hanson’s writing is “unromantic” and without “nostalgia.” But how could that be? There is no agrarian populism in 1999!) When Scialabba concludes this review thusly, “The “heroic ideal” and the “tragic sense”: these phrases already sound archaic. But our civilization has not outgrown what they signify; it has merely forgotten. Cultural amnesia is not the same thing as progress. Or is it, as the critics of “progress” allege?”, he comes closer to merging his view of modernity with that of Lasch than he does in his two close readings of Lasch’s work in this volume.
So Lasch, shouting out the Great Refusal to all of modernity, is another in this long line of gutsy truth tellers who push against the grain of the conventional wisdom. And Scialabba gives him bonus points for his unsalvageability. Way too many. Lasch builds a vast transportation device that does not move. His fantasy of a producerist ideology somehow redistributing wealth and power in a multi-polar world dominated by large pools of capital is just goofy. Lasch fears the very State that is the only entity capacious enough to circumscribe the power of private interests. He’s all dreams, he’s got no plans, and we want the plans, as Scialabba gently reminds Jacoby in another context. (As Scialabba presciently notes in his opening essay published in 1988, leftist intellectuals increasingly write “not for the ages, but for present efficacy.” (WAIGF, p. 18). I wonder for example if the brilliant, precocious Ezra Klein, one of the country’s leading experts on health care, has ever publicly written the word “modernity”—the lodestone that Scialabba has wrestled with lo these many years—and whether that is a bad thing.) Lasch romanticizes working class people who need support, not bug eyed suitors who project their own visions of unyielding strength and homespun wisdom onto them. And he vilifies college educated professionals—people like himself—some of whom, not surprisingly, are just as dedicated to humane purposes and good works as he was.
We want the plans. Rorty pretty much thought his work as a philosopher didn’t have much to do with social change. It was interesting to him and to people like him, of which in relative terms, there aren’t many. It became, for him, another form of “wild orchids”, a personal expression of pleasure, the kind that liberal society permits people to indulge. So he grew more and more drawn to writing about and around issues of public policy, advocating on behalf of a politics that might allow people to have enough money in their pocket to discover their own analogues for philosophy or wild orchids. He didn’t much think they understood the details of politics, but he was hopeful they’d stand up for themselves. In fact, when I met with him in 1996, he told me that, contra Lasch who mistook political enthusiasm for wisdom and knowledge, he took Lippmann’s side—the anti-populist side—in the famous Lippmann/Dewey debates of the 1920s about the public’s knowledge of policy issues, and its ability to rationally adjudicate politics in a democracy (he told me this somewhat abashedly, given his well known admiration for Dewey’s work). Like Lippmann, Rorty figured ordinary people had enough on their mind regarding their family, jobs, and whatever simple pleasures engaged them without trying to understand, oh, say, the public option for health care, or the virtues of cap and trade vs. a carbon tax. Rorty had some time on his hand and he could help the non-elites out by pointing to those elites who were trying to exploit them. Of course, this made him an elite too, not exactly the disinterested elite that Lippmann had in mind, but at least an alternative elite. I reminded him about the “best and brightest” getting us into Vietnam, and he just laughed, and said he hoped the elites would do a better job than that next time.
I think Rorty—who was matter of fact about it—and Lippmann—-who was pompous about it—are right. Even Dewey agreed with Lippmann, but lamely sort of wished it weren’t so. The people are busy—I’ve spent a lot of time around them. I’ve got a pretty good feel for this. Their jobs suck and they’re exhausted. When they get it together to do something amazing like build the CIO or create the Civil Rights movement, it’s a mitzvah composed of all kinds of things, especially incredibly tenacious, labor intensive organizing. Some of them are wonderful, and some of them are awful, and most of them are in between—kind of like everybody else. People who actually spent time around working class people—in New Hampton, Iowa, Ravenswood, West Virginia, LaPlace, Louisiana, Traverse City, Michigan—do not think of them or write about them in the way Lasch did. Organic intellectuals exist, but they are not a commonplace. It’s a hard life. As Clarence Darrow famously remarked: “I am a friend of the working man, and I would rather be his friend than be one.”
Lasch spent too much time trying to demonstrate that some stratums of the downtrodden were right or noble or resistant to the encroachments on their way of life. Rorty spent his time just trying to argue against those with power who were trying to screw them, regardless of whether the downtrodden themselves were so wonderful or their way of life was so great. Because frequently they aren’t and it isn’t. A lot of local knowledge isn’t so humane. And there are other people, too—those suffering from the pains of “social subordination”, as Nancy Fraser has put it, a kind of bigotry—who need our help. And they are in the very same communities that Lasch tended to view monolithically.
By the time he gets to the last essay of his book, Scialabba is a pretty worried guy. Lasch’s mood, if not his solutions, seems to have gotten to him (at least if the way he ordered these previously published essays mean anything). He thinks that all the great gifts of modernity—stuff that Lasch pushed against, but which Scialabba finally allows are pretty remarkable—may be lost to the great mass of human beings who haven’t been so blessed with cultural capital as he and the readers of his book. He quotes Sven Birkerts—a bloviator of Hindenburg like proportions—that we may be depleting language, which is our cultural “ozone layer.” So the language that has allowed a relative few to individuate in Rorty’s Whitmanian fashion may have already passed billions by. Who reads anything anymore? It’s depressing and scary stuff—Scialabba thinks the “electronic millennium” is a “threat.”
But if you always assumed that Lippmann was basically right, if you never thought that people mechanically listening to Sean Hannity—or for that matter, Rachel Maddow—had bitten off a huge piece of modernity in the first place, you don’t have to feel so bad. There will always be a Bourne, an Irving Howe, a Gene Debs, a Dr. King, an Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a Harvey Milk, a Walter Reuther—and a Richard Rorty and George Scialabba—at the ramparts, doing their best to stem the tide of greed, cruelty, and bigotry. Same as it ever was. It wasn’t so great during the bygone days of Artisan Republicanism either—a black person or a woman would have noted that this was no golden age. The world has always been a scary place, and it’s always been the fit though few who have undertaken to make stuff better. And, over time, they pick up some fellow travelers, and, oddly enough, things do get better.