Christopher Lasch semi-nostalgia

Philip Pilkington reminded me about Christopher Lasch, a critic of big government arguing from the left, who I remember not liking much back in the day. This summary is good, though:

Lasch was a complex figure. A cultural historian by trade, he wrote many fascinating books on topics as diverse as the idea of progress and the origins of cultural politics. His most outstanding work, however, was his critiques of the modern welfare state (most especially in The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self)...

Lasch claimed that as government intervention in the economy grew the state soon found itself mediating more and more social relationships. For example, as the welfare state flourished in the post-war era social workers soon became a significant social force. Lasch claimed that they would swoop in and destroy family ties, replacing these with artificial and technocratic relationships essentially ruled over by the state.

And it was not just in poor families that Lasch saw the creeping hand of the state. Middle class families too were coming to rely more and more on state institutions. From family planners to psychotherapists in public schools (guidance councillors) Lasch thought that many of our social relationships were gradually becoming mediated through a technocratic apparatus at the centre of which stood the modern state.

Lasch then went on to argue that such a shift was hollowing out everyday social relationships. As we came to increasingly rely on these supports our personal and family relationships became ever more distanced, ever more managed. Into this vacuum, Lasch claimed, swept celebrity and consumer culture. The state hollowed out our relationships – the market filled the void with tatty consumer goods and celebrity gossip. It is this mix that Lasch referred to as the "Culture of Narcissism."

In the fights over the NEA and government arts funding some of us pondered the wisdom of taking money from the same "technocratic apparatus" that was at the time funding Central American wars and building H-bombs. In the post quoted above, Pilkington goes on to consider the opposite extreme, which is a libertarian world without centralized government (its most likely short-term contribution, he predicts, would be "a depression from which it would take decades to fully recover"). He concludes that we need the feds for their stabilizing effects on markets but puts forward the idea of a jobs program where funds emanate from Washington but are distributed at the municipal, community level. Sounds fine, as long as there are mechanisms to prevent local Tammany Halls from eating up all the money.