“Progress needs the brakeman, but the brakeman should
not spend all his time putting on the brakes.”
The case for pessimism has been easy to make since Lincoln, and mandatory since Franklin Roosevelt. Today, not much is left of the Old Republic. As early as the 1930’s, Frank Chodorov could describe Washington, D.C., as a painted prostitute. Today, it is a whore of Babylonian proportions.
We have become inured to perpetual decline. Most Americans are getting poorer. 2 Live Crew is getting richer. Criminals are victims. The innocent are nobodies. Third-graders learn to put condoms on cucumbers. Virginity is an object of fun. Manners are extinct. Blasphemy is a sacrament. AIDS is a civil right. Martin Luther King is an icon. Rodney C. King is an assistant icon. Max Lerner is a conservative. And European-American culture is—like that dead white male Columbus—to be shoved off the edge of the new flat Earth.
In the midst of this comes Professor Christopher Lasch of the University of Rochester to warn us, in The True and Only Heaven, against a belief in progress. Lasch is an important intellectual historian, and his book reflects his professional status. His thesis—that the idea of progress has caused immense harm to society and should and will be scrapped—is compelling to many people. His analysis of a whole raft of opponents of progress, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Orestes Brownson, from Jonathan Edwards to Reinhold Niebuhr, is most useful. It is, in fact, a good adjunct to Robert Nisbet’s magisterial History of the Idea of Progress.
The True and Only Heaven also reflects Lasch’s paleoleftism. He tells us that the “capacity for loyalty is stretched too thin when it tries to attach itself to the hypothetical solidarity of the human race.” He criticizes modern liberalism for promoting feminism, sexual freedom, and divorce, and adds that “to see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light.” Lasch is still an economic leftist, however, and he draws upon cultural paleoism to 7urge conservatives to demand state limits to economic growth. Too many people, he believes, now agree with the “crude” idea “that the economy can indeed expand” and benefit “all society’s members.” This is Lasch’s understanding of that harmful “belief in progress that has dominated Anglo-American politics for two centuries.” Socialists used to promote their ideology as raising living standards. Now that Lasch, like other socialists, knows that socialism equals poverty, he wants us to believe that being poor is good for us, and for the “earth’s finite resources.” But the right still seeks to maintain “our riotous standard of living” at “the expense of the rest of the world (and increasingly at the expense of our own minorities as well).”
Everything earthly is finite, of course, but the Earth in its own right has no resources; they belong to man, and unless we put the United Nations in charge of their distribution, we are in no danger of running out of them. That is not what the environmentalists really worry about, however. “An Energy Glut in the Ground Imperils Ecological Hopes” ran a New York Times headline last fall; companies keep discovering vast new reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas, to the horror of the Greens. The intelligent use, or conservation, of resources can only be decided by property owners. That is why federal lands are overgrazed, or clear-cut and not replanted; why Yellowstone is allowed to burn over because fire from lightning is natural (whereas careless campers are arrested by Smokey the Bear); and why thirty thousand loggers and landowners are impoverished so that fifteen hundred birds can continue to live in the style to which they have become accustomed.
Nor do most Americans, outside of the rich and infamous in the imperial capital, have a “riotous” standard of living, thanks largely to the federal government. And while it is true that the sainted Third World and domestic underclasses do suffer from the warfare-welfare state, the vast bulk of the bill, economic and cultural, is footed by the American middle class. Capitalism, to Lasch, has the “ungodly ambition to acquire godlike pov/ers over nature.” Although he does not cite him in this context, Lasch agrees with Diderot: “I am convinced that the industry of man has gone too far. . . . I believe there is a limit in civilization, a limit more conformable to the felicity of man in general and far less distant from the savage state than is imagined.” This is the Green-socialist agenda in a nutshell. Contrast this attitude with that of Tertullian, who in the second century wrote: “Every territory [is now] opened to commerce. The most delightful farmsteads have obliterated areas formerly waste, plough-land has subdued the woods, domestic cattle have put to flight the wild beast, barren sands have become fertile, rocks are reduced to soil, swamps are drained, the number of cities today exceeds the number of isolated huts in former times, islands no longer inspire fear nor crags terror; everywhere people, everywhere organized communities, everywhere human life.”
Lasch, an admirer of syndicalism and guild socialism, also attacks capitalism for being essentially immoral. While rejecting Keynes’s personal “immemorialism,” Lasch in effect embraces his equally immoral economics: mass theft through inflation and other forms of redistribution. He charges the free market with breeding covetousness (although human greed seems to have been in abundant supply since the Fall), but he approves the covetous state. Lasch also claims that capitalism stimulates “insatiable demand,” but where is his evidence for this? Surely this “demand” is more prevalent still in the Soviet nomenklatura, let alone among our own bureaucracy and special interest organizations.
A recovering Marxist, Lasch has his own favorite class, which is not the proletariat but the petty bourgeoisie, whom he praises for it’s unique moral virtue. He argues that “small proprietors, artisans, tradesmen, farmers” are “unlikely to mistake the promised land of progress for The True and Only Heaven.” But that is not the same as rejecting the very idea of material progress, as Lasch does on their behalf How many members of the petty bourgeoisie would refuse, say, a backyard swimming pool or a second car on the ground that it would be morally corrupting? How many, in fact, would live happily as small holders in the shadow of the academic manor house? Lasch disparages “the tendency to want more than we need,” but this view is ultimately totalitarian. John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, sees all goods that maintain life above a subsistence level as “artificial,” to be taxed away or directly seized by the state; like Galbraith, Lasch would allow us only a lower-middleclass standard of living.
Lasch believes that an economy where “every wage earner is a potential artisan” or “shopkeeper” is the ideal, but complains that today, the “dream of setting up in business for yourself . . . remains almost universally appealing” and unachievable. So does the dream of writing a 591-page book, but are we to bemoan a division of labor that does not make every man an author? There is nothing wrong, morally or economically, in being an employee. To disparage this as wage slavery is to besmirch what must be, in an advanced economy, the prevalent form of work.
Another economic sin in Lasch’s eyes is advertising, designed “to make the consumer an addict, unable to live without increasingly sizable doses of externally provided stimulation.” He even blames drug addiction on “the very nature of a consumerist economy.” Aside from that silly analogy (soap ads lead to cocaine?), the advertising of books and other products provides economically vital information to consumers. And what, by the way, is wrong with consumption? It is the purpose of production. But since there will be so much less production as the Laschian state expands, advertising will be taboo except, presumably, for government commercials. (There will be no shortage of those.)
It is all too easy to overemphasize the material, of course, but that does not make general privation a virtue, nor is the vice of materialism restricted to the well-off. Bums scrounging quarters are hyper-materialistic, as are people in socialist countries, who must constantly focus on material concerns in order to survive.
Ultimately, for Lasch, capitalism fails because it is not familial. The family creates “obligations that override considerations of personal advantage.” The “market—no respecter of persons—reduces individuals to abstractions, anonymous buyers and sellers.” But this makes no more sense than equating society with the individual, with you the finger and me the toe, both under the strict direction of the head. Like everyone else who makes the society-as-family analogy, Lasch sees the state as the brain. He has apparently never visited Congress.
The idea of progress, even reasonable progress, certainly has its dangers. As Paul Elmer More pointed out, it can generate a “contemptuous attitude towards the past,” a “restiveness under any form of discipline or restraint, the feeling that one man is as good as another,” and “the introduction of a sort of down-at-the-heels laissez-faire into morals.” Condorcet, for example, looked forward to the time when the “successive changes in human society” will have brought us to a time of “no master save reason,” when “priests and their stupid or hypocritical tools will all have disappeared.” The proper response to this sort of thing is that of Tocqueville, for whom real progress was based upon religion. It is the “religious nations,” he said, which, “thinking only of the other world,” have found the “great secret of success in this.”
Lasch and other post-’89 socialists to the contrary, material improvement cannot be evil. “Just think of the progress and perfection which human skill has reached,” wrote St. Augustine in The City of God. “There have been discovered and perfected, by the natural genius of man, innumerable arts and skills which minister not only to the necessities of life but also to human enjoyment.” “Most men want to live and to prolong their lives; they want to be healthy and avoid sickness; they want to live comfortably and not to exist on the verge of starvation,” Ludwig von Mises said in Theory and History. “The question is not whether such progress makes people happy. It makes them happier than they would otherwise have been. . . . Nietzsche expressed misgivings about the ‘much too many.’ But the objects of his contempt thought differently.” So do the objects of Lasch’s affection.
As Mises points out, however, economic progress is far from inevitable. It is “the effect of an accumulation of capital goods exceeding the increase in population. If this trend gives way to a standstill . . . or to capital decumulation, there will no longer be progress in this sense of the term.” Today, big government has accomplished exactly that.
Lasch correctly criticizes the linking by the “libertarian movement” of “economic conservatism and cultural liberalism,” but his own reverse combination makes no more sense. The left wing properly unites economic statism and cultural libertinism, for both war against the natural law. It is no surprise, for example, that the feminist movement has always been socialist, or that the Communist Manifesto advocated central banking and free love. Economic liberty and conservative culture, on the other hand, also belong together, as John Paul II makes clear in his latest encyclical, Centesimus Annus.
It all comes down, as it often does, to theology, and Lasch is heavily influenced by Calvinism. If one believes in the total depravity of human nature, that good works are a contradiction in terms, and that no individual spiritual advancement is possible, then no human progress can take place. But if one believes, as Roman Catholics and others do, that human nature is wounded by original sin but not completely corrupted, that good works are valuable spiritually and on their own terms, and that individual spiritual advancement is possible, then so is human progress.
Contrary to Christopher Lasch’s belief, America can be moral, free, and ever more prosperous. That was the Founders’ vision, and, for a time, we progressed toward it.
[The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, by Christopher Lasch (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) 591 pp., $25.00]