Dialogue with Christopher Lasch
What’s Wrong with the Right?
order to understand what’s wrong with the right, we must first understand the
basis of its appeal. The conservative revival cannot be dismissed as a “simple
political reaction,” as Michael Miles wrote some time ago, “whose point is
to suppress a radical movement which by its nature poses a threat to the status
quo distribution of power and wealth.” Contemporary conservatism has a
strong populist flavor, having identified itself with the aspirations of
ordinary Americans and appropriated many of the symbols of popular democracy. It
is because conservatives have managed to occupy so much of the ground formerly
claimed by the left that they have made themselves an important force in
American politics. They say with considerable justification that they speak for
the great American middle class: hard working men and women eager to better
themselves, who reject government handouts and ask only a fair chance to prove
themselves. Conservatism owes its growing strength to its unembarrassed defense
of patriotism, ambition, competition, arid common sense, long ridiculed by
cosmopolitan sophisticates, and to its demand for a return to basics: to
“principles that once proved sound and methods that once shepherded the nation
through earlier troubled times,” as Burton Pines puts it in his
“traditionalist” manifesto, Back to Basics.
Far from defending the existing distribution of power,
many conservatives, especially those who stress so-called social issues, deplore
the excessive influence allegedly exercised by educated elites and see
themselves as embattled defenders of values that run counter to the dominant
values. They attribute most of the country’s ills to the rise of a .’highly
educated, relatively affluent group which benefits more from America’s riches
than its less educated fellow countrymen” yet condemns the “values and
institutions responsible for producing these riches.” Members of this new
class, according to Jeanne Kirkpatrick, “shape debate, determine agendas,
define standards, and propose and evaluate policies.’. It is they who
allegedly advocate unlimited abortion, attack religion and the family, criticize
capitalism, destroy general education in the name of unlimited freedom of
choice, replace basic subjects in the lower schools with sex education and
values clarification, and promote a new ethic of hedonism and self-exploration.
From a conservative point of view, a return to basics demands a democratic
movement against entrenched interests, in the course of which traditionalists
will have to master techniques of sustained activism formerly monopolized by the
Even if it could be shown that conservatives
misunderstand American society, exaggerate the power of the so-called new class,
underestimate the power of the business class, and ignore the undemocratic
implications of their own positions, it would still be important to understand
how they can see themselves as underdogs in the struggle for the American
future. The left, which until recently has regarded itself as the voice of the
.’forgotten man,” has lost the common touch. Failing to create a popular
consensus in favor of its policies, the left has relied on the courts, the
federal bureaucracy, and the media to achieve its goals of racial integration,
affirmative action, and economic equality. Ever since World War II, it has used
essentially undemocratic means to achieve democratic ends, and it has paid the
price for this evasive strategy in the loss of public confidence and support.
Increasingly isolated from popular opinion, liberals and social democrats
attempt to explain away opposition to economic equality as “working class
authoritarianism,” status anxiety, resentment, “white racism,” male
chauvinism, and proto-fascism. The left sees nothing but bigotry and
superstition in the popular defense of the family or in popular attitudes
regarding abortion, crime, busing, and the school curriculum. The left no longer
stands for common sense, as it did in the days of Tom Paine. It has come to
regard common sense—the traditional wisdom and folkways of the community—as
an obstacle to progress and enlightenment. Because it equates tradition with
prejudice, it finds itself increasingly unable to converse with ordinary people
in their common language. Increasingly it speaks its own jargon, the therapeutic
jargon of social science and the service professions that seems to serve mostly
to deny what everybody knows.
Progressive rhetoric has the effect of concealing
social crisis and moral breakdown by presenting them “dialectically” as the
birth pangs of a new order. The left dismisses talk about the collapse of family
life and talks instead about the emergence of “alternative life-styles” and
the growing new diversity of family types. Betty Friedan expresses the
enlightened consensus when she says that Americans have to reject the
“obsolete image of the family;’ to “acknowledge the diversity of the
families people live in now;’ and to understand that a family, after all, in
the words of the American Home Economics Association, consists simply of “two
or more persons Who share values and goals, and have commitments to one another
over time.” This anemic, euphemistic definition of the family reminds us of
the validity of George Orwell’s contention that it is a sure sign of trouble
when things can no longer be called by their right names and described in plain,
forthright speech. The plain fact of the matter—and this is borne out by the
very statistics cited to prove the expanding array of “lifestyles” from
which people can now choose—is that most of these alternative arrangements,
so-called, arise out of the ruins of marriages, not as an improvement of old
fashioned marriage. “Blended” or “reconstituted” families result from
divorce, as do “single-parent families:’ As for the other “alternative”
forms of the family, so highly touted by liberals—single “families,” gay
“marriages,” and soon-it makes no sense to consider them as families and
would still make no sense if they were important statistically, as they are not.
They may be perfectly legitimate living arrangements, but they are arrangements
chosen by people who prefer not to live in families at all, with all the
unavoidable constraints that families place on individual freedom. The attempt
to redefine the family as a purely voluntary arrangement (one among many
“alter-native” living arrangements) grows out of the modern delusion that
people can keep all their options open all the time, avoiding any constraints or
demands as long as they don’t make any demands of their own or “impose their
own values” on others. The left’s redefinition of the family encourages the
illusion that it is possible to avoid the “trap” of involuntary association
and to enjoy its advantages at the same time.
The question of the family, which now divides our
society So deeply that the opposing sides cannot even agree on a definition of
the institution they are arguing about, illustrates and supports the contention
that the left has lost touch with popular opinion, thereby making it possible
for the right to present itself as the party of common sense. The presumption
behind the older definition of the family is that ties of kinship and even of
marriage and adoption are likely to be more demanding than ties of friendship
and proximity. This is precisely 1Ihy many people continue to value them. For
most Americans, even for those who are disenchanted 1Iith their own marriages,
family life continues to represent a stabilizing influence and a source of
personal discipline in a world where personal disintegration remains always an
imminent danger. A growing
awareness of the depth of popular attachment to the family has led some
liberals, rather belatedly, to concede that “‘family’ is not just a buzz
word for reaction,” as Betty Friedan puts it.
But since these same liberals subscribe to the new flexible, pluralistic
definition of the family, their defense of families carries no conviction.
They ask people to believe, moreover, that there is no conflict between
feminism and the family. Most women, according to Friedan, want both feminism and the
family and reject categorization as pro-family or anti-family, pro-feminist or
anti-feminist. Most women are
pragmatists, in other words, who have allowed “extremists” on the left and
right to manipulate the family issue for their own purposes and to create a
“political polarization between feminism and the family.” Her suspicion of
ideology and her belief that it is possible to have things both ways—even in a
crippled economy—place Friedan’s argument squarely in the liberal tradition,
the very tradition that needs to be rethought and outgrown.
if the family issue illustrates characteristic weaknesses of American
liberalism, which have been effectively exploited by the right, it also
illustrates why the right-wing defense of “traditional values” proves
equally unsatisfactory. Consider
Rita Kramer’s book, In Defense of the Family. Although this book
contains much good sense about childrearing, its explanation of the plight of
the family is completely inadequate. Kramer blames the plight of the family on
interfering experts, on liberal intellectuals pushing their own permissive
morality as scientific truth, on the mass media, and on the bureaucratic welfare
state. She exonerates industrial capitalism, “which gets a bum rap on this
issue,” and she becomes absolutely lyrical whenever she touches on the subject
of industrial technology. She
speaks scornfully of those who want to “throw out all the machines and go back
to pre-industrial ways of arranging our lives.”
She insists that we can resist the “numbing and all-pervasive media”
and still enjoy the “undeniable blessings of technology.” Her position seems
to be that the nuclear family is so far superior to any other form of
childrearing that its persistence can be taken for granted—if only the experts
would go away and leave it alone.
unwittingly side with the social forces that contribute to the destruction of
This argument takes no account of the evidence that
most people no longer live in nuclear families at all. It takes no account of
the likelihood that women have entered the work force because they have no other
choice, nor because they are besotted by feminist ideology and believe there is
no other way to fulfill themselves. The last three decades have seen the
collapse of the family wage system, under which American enterprise, in effect,
invested in the single-income family as the best way of domesticating the
working class and forestalling labor militancy. This development is one more
that signals the arrival of a two-tiered society. Today it is no longer an
unwritten law of American capitalism that industry will attempt to maintain
wages at a level that allows a single wage to support a family. By 1976, only
40% of all jobs paid enough to support a family. This trend reflects, among
other things, a radical de-skilling of the work force, the substitution of
machinery for skilled labor, and a vast increase in the number of low-paying
unskilled jobs, many of which, of course, are now filled by women.
These are among the “blessings of technology” not considered by Rita
Kramer. Meanwhile the consumer
ethic has spread to men, as Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her study, The
Hearts of Men. For thirty years, publications like Playboy have been
urging men to define themselves not as breadwinners but as sybarites, lovers,
connoisseurs of sex and style—in short as playboys. The idea that a man has an
obligation to support a wife and family has come under attack not by feminist
intellectuals or government bureaucrats but by Hugh Hefner and other promoters
of a consumerist way of life.
It is the logic of consumerism that undermines the
values of loyalty and permanence and promotes a different set of values that is
destructive of family life—and much else besides. Kramer argues that the old
bourgeois virtues should be given a long, hard look before we discard them in
the name either of greater self-fulfillment or greater altruism.” But these
values are being discarded precisely because t hey no longer serve the needs of
a system of production based on advanced technology, unskilled labor, and mass
The therapeutic ethic, which has replaced the
19th.century utilitarian ethic, dues nut serve the “class interest” of
professionals alone, as Daniel Moynihan and other critics of the “new class”
have argued; it serves the needs of advanced capitalism as a whole. Moynihan
points out that by emphasizing impulse rather than calculation as the
determinant of human conduct, and by holding society responsible for the
problems confronting individuals, a government-oriented professional class has
attempted to create a demand for its own services. Professionals, he observes, have a vested interest in
discontent, because discontented people turn to professional devices for relief.
But the same principle underlies modern capitalism in general, which continually
tries to create new demands and new discontents that can be assuaged only by the
consumption of commodities. Professional self-aggrandizement grew up side by
side with the advertising industry and the whole machinery of demand-creation.
The same historical development that turned the citizen into a client
transformed the worker from a producer into a consumer. Thus the medical and
psychiatric assault on the family as a technologically backward sector of
society went hand in hand with the advertising industry’s drive to convince
people that store-bought goods are superior to homemade goods.
sense a link between television and drugs, but they do not grasp the nature of
this connection any more than they grasp the important fact about news: that it
represents another form of advertising, not liberal propaganda.”
The right insists that the “new class’. controls
the mass media and uses this control to wage a “class struggle’. against
business, as Irving Kristol puts
it. Since the mass media are financed by advertising revenues, however, it is
hard to take this contention seriously. It is advertising and the logic of
consumerism, not anti-capitalist ideology, that governs the depiction of reality
in the mass media. Conservatives complain that television mocks ,. free
enterprise” and presents businessmen as “greedy, malevolent, and
corrupt,’. like ].R. Ewing. To see anti-capitalist propaganda in a program
like Dallas, however, requires a suspension not merely of critical
judgment but of ordinary faculties of observation. Images of luxury, romance,
and excitement dominate such programs, as they dominate the advertisements that
surround and engulf them. Dallas is itself an advertisement for the good
life, like almost everything on television—that is, for the good life
conceived as endless novelty, change, and excitement, as the titillation of the
senses by every available stimulant, as unlimited possibility. “Make it new”
is the message not just of modern art but of modern consumerism, of which modern
art, indeed—even when it claims to side with the social revolution—is
largely a mirror image. We are all revolutionaries now, addicts of change. The
modern capitalist economy rests on the techniques of mass production pioneered
by Henry Ford but also, no less solidly, on the principle of planned
obsolescence introduced by Alfred E. Sloane when he instituted the annual model
chan8e. Relentless “improvement” of the product and upgrading of consumer
tastes are the heart of mass merchandising, and these imperatives are built into
the mass media at every level. Even the reporting of news has to be understood
not as propaganda for any particular ideology, liberal or conservative, but as
propaganda for commodities, for the replacement of things by commodities, use
values by exchange values, and events by images. The very concept of news
celebrates newness. The value of news, like that of any other commodity,
consists primarily of its novelty, only secondarily of its informational value.
As Waldo Frank pointed out many years ago, the news appeals to the same jaded
appetite that makes a child tire of a toy as soon as it becomes familiar and
demand a new one in its place. As Frank also pointed out (in The Re-discovery
of America, published in 1930), the social expectations that stimulate a
child’s appetite for new toys appeal to the desire for ownership and
appropriation: the appeal of toys comes to lie not in their use but in their
status as possessions. “A fresh plaything renews the child’s opportunity
to say: this is mine.’. A child who seldom gets a new toy, Frank says,
“prizes it as part If himself: But if “toys become more frequent, value is
gradually transferred from the toy to the toy’s novelty… The Arrival
of the toy, not the toy itself, becomes the event.”
The news, then, has to be seen as the “plaything of a child whose
hunger or toys has been stimulated shrewdly.”
We can carry this analysis one step further by pointing out hat the model
of ownership, in a society organized round mass consumption, is addiction. The
need for novelty and fresh stimulation become ever more intense, intervening
interludes of boredom increasingly intolerable.
It is with good reason that William Burroughs refers to the modern
consumer as an “image junkie.”
Conservatives sense a link between television and
drugs, but they do not grasp the nature of this connection any more than they
grasp he important fact about news: that it represents another form of
advertising, not liberal propaganda. Propaganda
in the ordinary sense of the term plays a less and less important part in a
consumer society, where people greet all official pronouncements with suspicion,
Mass media themselves contribute to the prevailing skepticism; one of their main
effects is to undermine trust in authority, devalue heroism and charismatic
leadership, and reduce everything to the same dimensions.
The effect of the mass media is not to elicit belief but to maintain the
apparatus of addiction. Drugs are
merely the most obvious form of addiction in our society.
It is true that drug addiction is one of the things that undermines
‘traditional values,’ but the need for drugs—that is, for commodities that
alleviate boredom and satisfy the socially stimulated desire for novelty and
excitement—grows out of the very nature of a consumerist economy.
The intellectual debility of contemporary conservatism
is indicated by its silence on all these important matters. Neoclassical
economics takes no account of the importance of advertising.
It extols the “sovereign consumer” and insists that advertising
cannot force consumers to buy anything they don’t already want to buy.
This argument misses the point. The
point isn’t that advertising manipulates the consumer or directly influences
consumer choices. The point is that it makes the consumer an addict, unable to
live without increasingly sizeable loses of externally provided stimulation and
excitement. Conservatives argue that television erodes the capacity for
sustained attention in children. They complain that young people now expect
education, for example, to be easy and exciting. This argument is correct as far
as it goes. Here again, however, conservatives incorrectly attribute these
artificially excited expectations to liberal propaganda—in this case, to
theories of permissive childrearing and “creative pedagogy.”
They ignore the deeper source of the expectations that undermine
education, destroy the child’s curiosity, and encourage passivity.
Ideologies, however appealing and powerful, cannot shape the whole
structure of perceptions and conduct unless they are embedded in daily
experiences that appear to confirm them. In our society, daily experience
teaches the individual to want and need a never-ending supply of new toys and
drugs. A defense of “free
enterprise” hardly supplies a corrective to these expectations.
Conservatives conceive the capitalist economy as it
was in the time of Adam Smith, when property was still distributed fairly
widely, businesses were individually owned, and commodities still retained
something of the character of useful objects. Their notion of free enterprise
takes no account of the forces that have transformed capitalism from within: the
rise of the corporation, the bureaucratization of business, the increasing
insignificance of private property, and the shift from a work ethic to a
consumption ethic. Insofar as
conservatives take any note of these developments at all, they attribute them
solely to government interference and regulation. They deplore bureaucracy but
see only its public face, missing the prevalence of bureaucracy in the private
sector. They betray no acquaintance with the rich historical scholarship which
shows that the expansion of the public sector came about, in part, in response
to pressure from the corporations themselves.
Conservatives assume that deregulation and a return
to the free market will solve everything, promoting a revival of the work ethic
and a resurgence of ‘traditional values.’
Not only do they provide an inadequate explanation of the destruction of
those values but they unwittingly side with the social forces that have
contributed to their destruction, for example in their advocacy of unlimited
growth. The poverty of contemporary conservatism reveals itself most fully in
this championship of economic growth the underlying premise of the consumer
culture the by products of which conservatives deplore.
A vital conservatism would identify itself with the demand for limits not
only on economic growth but on the conquest of space, the technological conquest
of the environment, and the human ambition to acquire godlike powers over
nature. A vital conservatism would see in the environmental movement the
quintessential conservative cause, since environmentalism opposes reckless
innovation and makes conservation the central order of business.
Instead of taking environmentalism away from the left, however,
conservatives condemn it as a counsel of doom.
“Free enterprisers,” says Pines, “insist that the economy can
indeed expand and as it does so, all society’s members can increase
their wealth.” One of the cardinal tenets of liberalism, the limitlessness
of economic growth, now undergirds the so-called conservatism that presents
itself as a corrective and alternative to liberalism.
only do conservatives have no understanding of modern capitalism, they have a
distorted understanding of the “traditional values” they claim to defend.
The virtues they want to revive are the pioneer virtues: rugged individualism,
boosterism, rapacity, a sentimental deference to women, and a willingness to
resort to force. These values are “traditional” only in the sense that they
are celebrated in the traditional myth of the Wild West and embodied in the
Western hero, the prototypical American lurking in the background, often in the
very foreground, of conservative ideology. In their implications and inner
meaning, these individualist values are themselves profoundly anti-traditional.
They are the values of the man on the make, in flight from his ancestors, from
the family claim, from everything that ties him down and limits his freedom of
movement. What is traditional about
the rejection of tradition, continuity, and rootedness? A conservatism that sides with the forces of restless
mobility is a false conservatism. So
is the conservatism false that puts on a smiling face, denounces “doom sayers,”
and refuses to worry about the future. Conservatism appeals to a pervasive and
legitimate desire in contemporary society for order, continuity, responsibility,
and discipline; but it contains nothing with which to satisfy these desires, It
pays lip service to “traditional values,” but the policies with which it is
associated promise more change more innovation more growth, more technology,
more weapons, more addictive drugs. Instead of confronting the forces in modern life that
make for disorder, it proposes merely to make Americans feel good about
themselves. Ostensibly rigorous and
realistic, contemporary conservatism is an ideology of denial.
Its slogan is the slogan of Alfred E. Neumann: “What? Me worry?” Its
symbol is a smile button: that empty round face devoid of features except for
two tiny eyes, eyes too small to see anything clearly, and a big smile: the
smile of someone who is determined to keep smiling through thick and thin.
Conservatives stress the importance of religion, but
their religion is the familiar American blend of flag waving and personal
morality. It centers on the trivial issues of swearing, neatness, gambling,
sportsmanship, sexual hygiene, and school prayers. Adherents of the new religious right correctly reject the
separation of politics and religion, but they bring no spiritual insights to
politics. They campaign for political reforms designed to discourage
homosexuality and pornography, say, but they have nothing to tell us about the
connection between pornography and the larger consumerist structure of addiction
maintenance. Their idea of the proper relation between politics and religion is
to invoke religious sanctions for specific political positions, as when they
declaim that budget deficits, progressive taxation, and the presence of women in
the armed forces are “anti-biblical.” As in their economic views,
conservatives advance views of religion and of the political implications of
religion that derive from the tradition of liberal individualism.
Liberalism, as a Lutheran critic of the religious right points out,
“means straining scripture to mandate specific positions on social justice
issues, . . . bending the word of God to fit your political ideas.”
The religiosity of the American right is self-righteous and idolatrous. It perceives no virtue in its opponents and magnifies its
own. In the words of a pamphlet
published by the United Methodist Church, “The ‘New Religious Right’ has.
… made the same mistake committed by the social gospeler earlier in the
century. They exaggerate the sins
of their opponent and negate any original sin of their own.
They have become victims of what Reinhold Niebuhr called ‘easy
conscience,’ or what the New Testament describes as the self-righteousness of
the Pharisees.” The most offensive and dangerous form of this
self-righteousness is the attempt to invoke divine sanction for the national
self-aggrandizement of the United States in its global struggle against
as if American imperialism were any less godless than Soviet imperialism.
In the words of Paul Simmons, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary, “Identifying the Judeo-Christian posture with American nationalism
is to lose the transcendent and absolute nature of the Christian faith.
For Christians and Jews, loyalty to God must transcend any earthly
The proper reply to right wing religiosity is not to
insist that “politics and religion don’t mix.” This
is the stock response of the left, which has been caught off guard by the right
and remains baffled by the revival of religious concerns and by the
insistence—by no means confined to the religious right—that a politics
without religion is no proper politics at all.
Bewildered by the sudden interest in “social issues,” the left would
like either to get them off the political agenda or failing that, to redefine
them as economic issues. When
liberals finally grasped the strength of popular feeling about the family, they
cried to appropriate the rhetoric and symbolism of “family values” for their
own purposes, while arguing that the only way to strengthen the family is to
make it economically viable. There is truth in this contention, of course, but
the economic dimension of the family issue can’t be separated so easily from
the cultural dimension. Nor can bigger welfare budgets make the family
economically viable. The economic basis of the family—the family wage—has
been eroded by the same developments that have promoted consumerism as a
way of life. The family is threatened not only by economic pressures but by an
ideology that devalues motherhood, equates personal development with
participation in the labor market, and defines freedom as individual freedom of
choice, freedom from binding commitments.
The problem isn’t how to keep religion out of
politics but how to subject political life to spiritual criticism without
losing sight of the tension between the political and the spiritual realm.
Because politics rests on an irreducible measure of coercion it can never become
a perfect realm of perfect love and justice.
But neither can it be dismissed as the work of the devil (as Jacques
Ellul maintains in his recent writings). A complete separation of religion and
politics, whether it arises out of religious indifference or out of its
opposite, the religious passion of Ellul, condemns the political realm to
“perpetual warfare,” as Niebuhr argued in Moral Man and Immoral Society) “If
social cohesion is impossible without
coercion, and coercion is impossible without the creation of social
injustice, and the destruction of injustice is impossible without the use of
further coercion are we not ill all endless cycle of social conflict? . . . If
power is needed to destroy power, ...an uneasy balance of power would seem to
become the highest goal to which society could aspire.” The only way to break
the cycle is to subject oneself and one’s political friends to the same
rigorous moral standards to which one subjects one’s opponents and to invoke
spiritual standards, moreover, not merely to condemn one’s opponents but also
to understand and forgive them. An
uneasy balance of power now enshrined as the highest form of politics in the theory
of interest—group liberalism—can be ended only by a politics of “angerless
wisdom,” a politics of nonviolent coercion that seeks to resolve the endless
argument about means and ends by making nonviolent means, openness, and
truth-telling political ends in their own right.
Needless to say, this is not a task either for the new
right, for interest group liberals, or for those on the left who still cling to
the messianic hope of social revolution. Faced with the unexpected growth of the
new right, the left has asked itself how it can recover its former
strength and momentum. Some call
for a vigorous counterattack, a reassertion of the left-wing gospel in all its
purity and messianic fervor. Others
wait passively for another turn of the political cycle, another age of reform.
More thoughtful people on the left have begun, however reluctantly, to
acknowledge the legitimacy of some of the concerns that underlie the growth of
contemporary conservatism. But even
this last response is inadequate if it issues simply in a call For the left to
appropriate conservative issues and then to give them a liberal twist.
The hope of a new politics does not lie in formulating a left-wing reply to the
right, It lies in rejecting conventional political categories and redefining the
terms of political debate. The idea
of a “left” has outlived its historical time and needs to be decently
buried, along with the false conservatism that merely clothes an older liberal
tradition in conservative rhetoric. The old labels have no meaning anymore. They
can only confuse debate instead of clarifying it. They are products of an
earlier era, the age of steam and steel, and are wholly inadequate to the age of
electronics, totalitarianism, and mass culture.
Let us say good-bye to these old friends, fondly but firmly, and look
elsewhere for guidance and moral support.
A Feminist Response to Lasch
is a testimony to the impoverishment of the American Left that the only thing
most of its adherents can do these days, when they are not sitting and fuming
quietly, is to emulate the Right. And among the most fashionable” causes” of
both Right and Left now is the demoralization of the American family.
“Progressive rhetoric,” writes Christopher Lasch in Tikkun’s premier
issue, “has the effect of concealing social crisis and moral breakdown by
presenting them ‘dialectically’ as the birth pangs of a new order.” With
those words, Lasch launches into what is by now a familiar diatribe about what
he calls the liberal anemic, euphemistic definition” of the family. And it
becomes hard to tell whether we’re reading Christopher Lasch : pr jerry
Falwell’s latest sermon.
At issue for Lasch is whether blended families,
single-parent families, gay families can rightly be called “families.” His
answer is no. These may be “perfectly legitimate living arrangements,” he
insists, “but they are arrangements chosen by people who prefer not to live in
families at all, with all the unavoidable constraints that families place on
individual freedom.” How or why
he comes to this conclusion is unclear; largely because this is a moral issue
for him, not a social and political one, just as it is for Falwell and Reagan.
Once cast in moral terms, one need neither present a reasoned argument nor
attend to the real experience of people’s lives, a preordained notion of right
or wrong is all that counts.
According to Lasch’s definition above,
“constraint” becomes a crucial if not the central and defining
feature of family life, while “choice” is the villain in those living
arrangements to which he refuses to accord the status of “family.” There’s
much to be said about his choice of words here, For even if we are willing to
grant them some credibility, the issue of choice and constraint in family life
is not So clear. The divorced mother of the 1980’s, for example, all too often
is raising her children alone out of necessity, not choice. But even when a
woman chooses to leave a marriage, can anyone seriously believe that the shape
of her life is less constrained after divorce, when she almost always becomes
the sole emotional and economic support of those children?
And by what reasoning do we deride that two
people who live .and love in a long-term, stable relationship, perhaps even
raise a child together, are any less subject to the constraints of family life
simply because they sleep with someone of the same sex instead of the opposite
one? Certainly for many Americans
the commitment to a marriage is itself the constraining force. But surely no one living through an era when half of all
marriages end in divorce can still believe that legal constraints alone provide
the binding force on those who wed, And if it is the deeper emotional ties and
attachments that make for stable relationships, then who is to say that
heterosexuality supplies a monopoly on these?
There is no logic here, There is only an
emotional and nostalgic wish for a past that never existed for most people
anywhere in the world. The old family for which Christopher Lasch grieves
was, historically speaking, a reality for a very brief period following the
Industrial Revolution and even then only among a select group of
people—the bourgeoisie. Moreover,
it is this very bourgeois family, whose return he calls for, that broke down
under the weight of the contradictions chat surround it.
In the public arena, the family has been our hallowed
and sacred institution, politicians paying it obeisance as they remind us and
each other of its importance in American life.
Yet both economy and polity have failed to support it.
We are, after all, the only advanced industrial nation that has no public
policy of support for the family, whether with family allowances or decent
publicly-sponsored childcare facilities.
Inside the family, too,
there’s conflict between our ideal statements and the reality of life as it is
lived there. We are a nation that
speaks of liberty and equality for all, yet the family has been a hierchica11y
ordered institution in which liberty and equality largely have been labeled
“for men only.” As long
as the traditional bargain in the bourgeois family worked—that is, a woman
would trade equality and freedom for economic security—that family had a
chance. But long before the emergence of the modem feminist
movement this bargain had already been breached, and men in large numbers were
leaving wives who were ill prepared to do so to fend for themselves and their
We need only look at the work of family historians to
see the difficulties of family life throughout the ages—the struggle for
survival that, for most families, has been arduous and exhausting, if not
downright torturous. And if these
aren’t convincing enough, a Dickens novel should do the trick.
The cruelties and oppression family members pave
visited upon one another, as they acted out their rage against their own instead
of the enemy outside, have been well documented. And the issue of family
instability that plagues us today has, in one way or another, been with us at
least since the Industrial Revolution so effectively split work from family life
and family members from each other. It was different then. It wasn’t divorce
that divided families; it was death and desertion. It wasn’t drugs that
crippled the children; it was being tied to a machine for twelve to fourteen
hours a day.
Yet Lasch, the historian, manages to write as if he
knows nothing of all this. The family may be under threat from economic
pressures, he concedes, but the real threat comes from a feminist ideology;
which, in his words, “devalues motherhood, equates personal development with
participation in the labor market, and defines freedom as individual freedom of
choice, freedom from binding commitments.”
When over 50 percent of all married women with young children are in the
labor force, it’s time to stop blaming feminists for destroying the family.
Whatever personal satisfactions these women may find at work, the cold
hard fact of American family life today is that it takes two incomes to live
decently and still pay the bills.
Here again, it’s hard to tell Lasch from Schlafly.
Both offer a hostile and oversimple view of modern feminism; both
misstate feminist theory and ideology and misread our recent history.
A social movement like feminism does not arise in a vacuum.
Rather feminism in this modern era came to life precisely because the
family itself had already failed in its function to provide for its members that
“haven in a heartless world” for which so many of us yearn.
Not for women, not for children, and not for men either.
Lasch rails at women who have demanded change in the
structure of roles in the family, all the while refusing to acknowledge the
inequities of traditional family life, from female infanticide to battered
women. He laments the demise of the family wage system—that is, the system
whereby the wages of one worker could support a family—and argues that it is
the breakdown of this wage system that has driven women into the labor force in
such large numbers. But what family
is he talking about? Except for a
few of the economically privileged, this family wage that he mourns so deeply
has never been enough to support the family adequately. In fact, women in working-class families have always had to
supplement their husband’s wage, whether by taking in washing or working in
It certainly is true that feminists have been in the
forefront of the struggle for change in the family. But instead of being on an inevitable collision course with
the family, as Lasch insists, feminists have offered the first new vision in
many decades of what, at its best, family life could and should be: Two adults
who are equally responsible for the economic, social and emotional well-being of
the family, both sharing childrearing, one of life’s most difficult but
ultimately most gratifying tasks from which men have been excluded far too long
by current familial arrangements.
No one will deny that there’s a deep concern abroad
today, that many Americans fed bruised and angry in the aftermath of two decades
of social upheaval. It’s
undeniable, also, that such periods of social unrest anywhere have both positive
and negative effects. But a little history is useful in putting both into
sixties started with the movement for sexual freedom that coexisted with a
movement to humanize the work environment. That, in some important way, was what
the famous free Speech Movement at Berkeley was all about—a movement to bring
bureaucratic regulation within human control. The decade ended with the
emergence of the modern feminist movement whose major commitment was and is to
reorder the rules of love and work in the interest of a more human and humane
society for all.
Yes, we sometimes got lost en route. Sexual freedom
and the search for sexual intimacy became corrupted by the promise of instant
gratification. The concerns about humanizing work and reordering life’s
priorities were trivialized and aborted by an ethic that exhorted us to “Tune
in, turn on, and drop out.” Words like struggle, commitment, responsibility
were scorned. And the way of
life—both good and bad—that such words undergird was consigned to oblivion.
In that context, the human potential movement in psychology talked about
developing our potential for intimacy, self-awareness and personal growth but
offered instead only a narcissistic sham where people searched frantically, but
always in fleeting and inconstant encounters, or a connection both to a self and
to an “Other.” Finally, along
with all its positive impact, the feminist struggle to make the family a more
egalitarian institution, to equalize the power relations between men and women
there and elsewhere, left both feeling sometimes wounded, sometimes embittered,
and almost always without the old familiar ways of dealing with each other.
But on the positive side, important gains have been
made, while we also seem to have come back to some balance on many of these
issues. In the private arena, the
tremendous sexual repression of the past has been lifted and, at the same time,
an ethic that calls for more sexual responsibility has been emerging in recent
years. We may still have a way to
go to make our interpersonal relationships all that we want and need, but the
enormous success among men as well as women of my own Intimate Strangers—a book
that offers no easy answers, whether in the bedroom, the living room or the
kitchen—is itself testimony to our willingness to engage the struggle.
In the public sphere, the gains are more visible.
There is no longer exclusively women’s work and men’s work, whether
in the elite building trades or in the professions. Sex discrimination has not ended, to be sure.
But today’s children will feel no surprise at the sight of a woman
pilot or plumber. And already the sound of a male voice on an AT&T line no
longer gives any of us a jolt.
Some of these changes are relatively broad and deep;
others are still symbolic only. All
of them stand, also, alongside a set of problems that have yet to be
tackled—the increasing feminization of poverty, the double shift to which most
women who work outside the home are consigned, the lack of childcare facilities.
Still, the fact that there are problems yet to be met and mastered should not
disable us from seeing and appreciating the gains.
Certainly there’s work ahead if family life is to
fulfill our ideal vision. But it is not a return to a
past we need, a past where the constraints were so great that neither men nor
women were expected to enjoy what we so delicately called “ connubial
relations,” where divorce was either illegal or so socially unacceptable that
the only alternative for men was desertion and for women, stoic endurance.
Instead, we must reorder our social priorities in ways that support rather than
hinder family life.
For at least the last one hundred and fifty years, the
major threat to family life has been the organization of work. If the family is
to survive, we need to think creatively about reorganizing the world of work to
honor family life and give it the priority it deserves.
This means, among other things, a shorter work week ‘or both men and
women, benefit packages that permit I substantial amount of time off when a
child is born, adequate and affordable child care facilities.
The Left has much to criticize itself for, not least
for laving lost touch with the American consciousness, with the hopes, the
dreams and the fears of most of our people.
But that doesn’t mean joining the Right in their unrealistic attempts
to turn back the clock to a world that never was.
Nor should we be supporting their insistence that there are simple and
easy answers to the hard issues our society faces, whether about the family or
about any of the other arenas of both public and private life in which problems
abound. It is indeed, as Lasch argues, time for those of us who call ourselves
progressives or, dare I even say the word, radicals to take stock of where we
have been and to begin to define an agenda for the future that takes account of
the legitimate concerns of most Americans. But he is wrong when he seeks to do
so by pandering to the worst elements of the existing popular consciousness.
at least the last one hundred and fifty years, the major
Until now, I have been one of Christopher Lasch’s
defenders, arguing that, despite serious flaws in his analysis, he has had the
courage and imagination to raise questions that others on the Left have failed
to confront. But it seems to me now that his rage and fear about the state of
society has led him to the kind of analysis this article displays, whether about
the family or about the role of religion in politics. In both, he treads on
dangerous ground. For despite a sometimes trenchant critique of the positions of
the Right, the Ultimate effect of what he has written is to show that they are
not on the wrong side, only that they misunderstand the source of the problem.
In doing so, Lasch has given over to the meanest and most reactionary forces in
our land the power to set the terms for our own debate—a
mistake the Left has made before and always has paid for dearly.
Why the Left Has No Future
Faced with the embarrassing gap between Leftist
ideology and “existing popular consciousness”—a gap that began to reveal
itself as early as the 1940’s—the American Left has had to choose, in
effect, between two equally futile and self-defeating strategies: either to wait
hopelessly for the revolution, while fulminating against “capitalism,” or to
try to gain its objectives by outflanking public opinion, giving up the hope of
creating a popular constituency for social reform, and relying instead on the
courts, the mass media, and the administrative bureaucracy. As militant outsiders or bureaucratic insiders, radicals have
succeeded only in laying the basis of a conservative movement that has managed
to present itself, infuriatingly, as a form of cultural populism, even though
its own program, especially its economic program, seeks only to perpetuate the
existing distribution of wealth and power—indeed, to reverse most of the
democratic gains actually achieved over the last five decades.
An analysis of the capitalist economy, even a fresh
and trenchant analysis (as opposed to Lichtman’s lifeless theorizing), in
itself would contribute very little to an understanding of the political
situation in this country. Why should economic contraction deprive liberalism of
its “rationale,” as Lichtman maintains?
One might expect that it would have the opposite affect, as it did in the
1930’s. During the Depression,
liberal democrats argued that questions about the distribution of wealth,
obscured in the past by a long history of economic expansion, could no longer be
postponed. Liberals’ reluctance
to press such a point today, when it would be equally pertinent in a climate of
diminishing expectations, cannot be explained without reference to the collapse
of the political coalition had sustained liberalism in the past; and this
development, in turn, cannot be explained without reference o the cultural
issues that have separated liberals from their popular constituency. The
divisive political effects if this “ cultural civil war” are documented in
many historical studies—for example, in Frederick Siegel’s useful survey of
American history since World War II, Troubled Journey. I recommend this
book to anyone who wants to understand why the Left has fallen on hard
times, as a substitute for the kind of theorizing which assumes that invocation
of the magic words, capitalism and socialism, will explain everything that needs
to be explained.
To readers who are tired of formulas, I can also
recommend a long list of works on consumerism, mass culture, and the mass
media—among others, those of Jackson Lears, Richard Fox, Stewart Ewen, William
Leach, and Todd Gitlin. Read Gitlin
on the media overage of the student movement in the sixties and then try to
convince yourself that a reactionary political bias accounts for everything.
But don’t be afraid to rely on your own observations, which ought to be
enough, all by themselves, to raise doubts about the dogma that the mass media
purvey a right-wing ideology of “loyalty, ...patriotism, and
anti-intellectualism, elitism, anti-communism,” and uncritical acquiescence.
Ask yourself how it is possible for so many people to believe that the
media, controlled by the “eastern liberal establishment,” purvey a
diametrically opposed ideology, one of undiluted liberal orthodoxy.
This belief is no less misguided than the left-wing dogma that the media
are ‘holly dominated by the” interests.”
But neither belief can be dismissed out of hand.
Instead of replying to one dogma with another, we have to take them
seriously enough to understand how they came to be held and what makes them seem
like plausible descriptions of reality. The
refusal to pay attention to popular perceptions or to listen to any views that
don’t agree with those one already holds is a recipe, it goes without saying,
As for the question of whether Americans believe everything
they see on television, fifteen minutes in a bar ought to settle the matter.
Only political frustration, a relentlessly abstract quality of mind, or
lack of any exposure to everyday life—or a combination of these
disabilities—could have led Lichtman to say that the “great majority of
Americans absorb, as though by osmosis, the vast majority of Administration
deceits, lies, and distortions...” It would be hard to find a single statement that better
exemplifies the plight of the Left—its diminished capacity not only for
rigorous analysis of social conditions but for ordinary observation, its
suffocating self-righteousness, its inability to summon up the elementary
political realism that would begin by trying to understand the basis of its
adversaries’ political appeal, above all its lack of any political prospects
of its own. If the “vast majority
of Americans” are as easily fooled as Lichtman thinks, they will never accept
socialism, except at the point of a gun, It is hard to escape the conclusion
that socialism—“careful now!”—appeals to Lichtman, as it appeals to so
many of those “radicals” who covet reputation of radicalism without its
attendant risks, just because it is mildly unpopular (though destined, of
course, for ultimate success) and therefore retains a faint afterglow of the
dangerous and forbidden, at the same time providing all the intellectual comfort
of a safe, predictable, fixed, unchanging body of dogmas.
Readers will find my position confusing only if they
persist in thinking that any position not immediately assimilable to left-wing
orthodoxy belongs automatically to the Right. The experience of adversity, under
Reagan, has intensified the demand for ideological conformity on the Left and
thus encouraged this kind of thinking, always appealing to those insecure people
who yearn for the excitement of taking sides in the eternal struggle between the
forces of progress and the forces of “regression.” “Which side are you on,
boys?” When the sides were more
clearly drawn, the question made some sense.
It still makes sense if it means that people who profess a disinterested
love of truth and justice ought to be skeptical, on principle, of the claims of
wealth and power and predisposed to side with the underdog.
But the Left long ago lost any vivid interest in underdogs.
It is allergic to anything that looks like a lost cause.
Such moral authority as the Left enjoyed in the past derived from its
identification with the oppressed; but its appeal to intellectuals,
unfortunately, has usually rested on its claim to stand on the side of history
and progress. What added to the
thrill of choosing sides was the certainty that in socialism one chose he
winning side, the “cooperative commonwealth” lure to prevail in the long
run. The only morally defensible choice, however, is the choice of mercy,
charity, and forgiveness over the world’s principalities and powers, the
choice of truth against ideology. To
make that choice today means to reject Left and Right alike.
For those who refuse the choice when it is presented
in this way, my argument remains a “muddle.”
(Others lave been able to follow it without difficulty.) The muddle,
I’m afraid, is in my critics’ beads. Lichtman
pounces on what he sees as a contradiction: on the one hand I reject the attempt
to define the family out of existence on the other hand I concede that most
people no longer live in nuclear families. But the improvisation of new living
arrangements in the wake of marital breakdown does not mean that these new
living arrangements can best be understood as “ alternatives” to the
conventional family or that most people view them in that way.
Lillian Rubin blunders into the same “contradiction.”
In her dreadfully confused discussion of choice and constraint, she
reminds me, unnecessarily, that single-parent families often arise out of
necessity, not choice. But this was
precisely my point when I said that Orwellian sloganeering about
“alternative lifestyles” and the “new diversity of family types” serves
to disguise marital breakup as an exhilarating new form of freedom, just as some
sloganeering about “women’s liberation” disguises the economic necessity
that forces women into the labor market. My
intention is to promote plain speech and discourage euphemism.
To this end, my essay distinguished between two types of living
arrangements misleadingly referred to as “alternative” forms of the family:
those makeshift arrangements single-parent households, blended families) that
usually result from divorce or desertion and those arrangements (gay
“marriages,” informal cohabitation, single persons living alone) freely
chosen by people who reject family life altogether.
By confusing these two quite different categories) Rubin loses the logic
of my argument and then complains that “there is no logic here.”
Let me try to restate my argument about the family in a form my critics
can follow. In the interest of
simplicity, I want to confine most of my attention to the first category of
“families.” The second can be
easily disposed of. Single persons
living alone obviously can’t be described very well as families (though people
have tried). As for informal
cohabitation, even if we could agree to call it a marriage of sorts, we would
still have no reason to call it a family. In
every society known to anthropology, with a few much-debated exceptions, a
family consists of a man and woman united by marriage and living with their
offspring. It is impossible to
discuss family without reference to marriage, but it is also impossible to
discuss it as if it were marriage and nothing more.
Clearly it means a marriage plus children. Any other type of “family” is just word play.
That leaves us with the first category. No one can
object to the designation of blended families, extended families, or even,
perhaps, to single-parent households as families. The question is whether these
arrangements represent alternatives to the “traditional” family or its
ruins. I think it would be hard to
show that people have I elected these arrangements in the spirit of social
pioneering. All the evidence
suggests that people prefer more conventional domestic arrangements but find it
hard to hold them together. What is misleading is not so much the description of
new arrangements as families but the additional claim that people now prefer
“alternative families” to the “traditional nuclear family.”
On the contrary, most people still seem to cherish the stability
associated with the “traditional” family, even though this ideal no longer
conforms very well to everyday experience.
People still cherish the stability of long-term
marital and intergenerational commitments, in other words, but
find little support for them in a capitalist economy or in the prevailing
ideology of individual rights. Liberal
societies tend to undermine family life, even though most of them profess a
sentimental attachment to “family values.”
This tendency has been present from the very beginning of the liberal
capitalist order, in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the first place, the family wage was a poor
substitute for the self-sustaining domestic economy destroyed by industrialism.
Not only did wages often fall short of family’s actual requirements,
but the family wage-system had the effect, precisely when it was most
successful, of making women economically dependent on men – an unhealthy state
In the second place, the ideology of individual rights
was deeply opposed to “family values” (although the—right has never
grasped this point). By defining
the individual as a rational calculator of his own advantage, liberal ideology
made it impossible to conceive of any form of association not based on the
calculation of mutual advantage; that is, on a contract.
There is no place in liberalism, or at best an insecure and precarious
place, for those forms of association based on spontaneous cooperation.
When people start to argue bout their rights, about receiving their fair
share of goods, spontaneous cooperation breaks down.
When cooperation breaks down, conversely, people start to argue about
their rights. It is less important
to try to establish which came first, historically, than to recognize the
antipathy between a contractual view of association, specifically of marriage
and the family, and a view, on the other hand, that regards a promise not as a
contractual obligation but as a test of character.
According to the first way of looking at things, you keep a promise as
long as it works out to your advantage or—in a variant of this prudential
morality only marginally superior—because it is desirable for you to establish
the reputation of keeping promises. The
second view, by contrast, refuses to regard promise-keeping as a matter of
social convenience. It takes the
position that “promise-keeper,” as K. R. Minogue puts it in The Liberal
Mind, “has a different character from a promise-breaker, and [that] this
character can only be adequately described if we consider it in moral terms.”
products of a liberal culture, we find it difficult to understand the importance
other political traditions place on spontaneous cooperation and the value of
promises. For the Greeks, the
capacity to make promises was almost the definition of a political animal.
Feudalism rested on a different but equally powerful conception of the
importance of binding oaths. The
modern conception, on the other hand—which is profoundly apolitical—is that
the capacity for rational choice, rational calculation of utility and personal
advantage, is what defines the citizen or the consenting adult, as we say.
The modern conception gives little support to the binding promises that
underlie the family, especially when we add to the ideology of individual rights
the widely accepted belief in the universal obligation to be happy.
Liberal ideology not only gives little support to the family, it cannot
even make sense of the family, an institution that appears irrational in the
sense that its members ideally do not think of their own interests and of the
rights designed to protect them, and in the further sense that they promise to
sustain each other through a lifetime. What folly!
The whole tendency of modern society, of modern
liberalism in particular, consigns family life (by any reasonable definition of
family life) to the realm of “nostalgia.”
Note that I don’t blame the instability of family life on feminism.
Since feminism is an expression of well-founded grievances, and since the
economic and ideological assault on the foundations of family life antedated
emergence of a feminist movement, it would be foolish to blame feminism for the
collapse of the family. But it is equally foolish to pretend that feminism is
compatible with the family. Feminism is itself an outgrowth of liberalism, among
other things, and it shares liberalism’s belief in individual rights,
contractual relations, and the primacy of justice, all of which make it
impossible to understand the nature or the value of spontaneous cooperation.
Spontaneous associations like the family
institutionalize (in the form of promises, oaths, covenants) a willingness
to accept the consequences of your actions – in the case of the family, the
act of procreation. The family
implicates the older generation in the life of the younger.
It counters the tendency, highly developed in humans and especially among
human males, to run away from responsibility for the young.
The family is culture’s answer to the peculiar structure of human
biology, to the absence of sexual periodicity which makes it possible for humans
to breed with abandon, and to the prolonged dependence of the human young.
The combination of these two biological traits would be fatal to the
prospects for reproduction and cultural transmission without institutions
designed to tie people to their offspring and to constrain both sexes to their
Because the monogamous ideal institutionalized in the
family runs counter to human biology, it is appropriate to see the family as
above all a system of constraints. In
our enlightened age, the apparent irrationality of these constraints, of the
very idea of constraints, provides much of the energy for the effort to work out
“alternative lifestyles” (an effort, however, that is not nearly as
widespread as our liberators would like to believe, since it conflicts with a
stubborn popular realism in these matters). In the face of this revolt against
familial constraints, it is important to stress their value, which lies not only
in their negative effect, in making it more difficult than it would be otherwise
for men to desert their women and children, but in the encouragement these
constraints give to a full understanding of freedom itself, one that goes beyond
the equation of freedom with unlimited choice and “nonbinding commitments.”
Although the institution of the family forced men to
become monogamous, a double standard of sexual conduct has always winked at
their frequent lapses from this ideal, while punishing women for the same
lapses, usually with brutal severity. The
double standard was perhaps the most important single influence that eventually
brought the family into discredit. The
twentieth century, unfortunately, has tried to correct this blatant
injustice by instituting a single standard of sexual license, whereas the proper
remedy is a more exacting standard of sexual fidelity and a more exacting
definition of the responsibility of parents to their children.
A “family policy” designed to shift this responsibility to the state
is no solution at all. Nor is it a
‘radical” solution. It would merely ratify the pattern of bureaucratic
individualism that already exists, in which the state takes over the nurturing
functions formerly associated with parenthood and leaves people free to enjoy
themselves as consumers. Such a solution makes children of us all.
The world can do without a ‘radicalism’ that proposes only to carry
existing arrangements to their logical conclusion: the absorption of public life
by the state and the destruction of intermediate institutions by redefining them
as pressure groups or “lifestyle enclaves” (in Robert Bellah’s phrase) in
which individuals are left free to pursue purely private interests and
Since Rubin invokes the sixties in order to support her dubious claim that
the radical movements of that decade found their final perfection in feminism,
it would be a good idea to remind ourselves that the sixties also saw a revival
of the communitarian tradition that has always coexisted with the dominant
liberal tradition. The dispute
between communitarians and liberals hinges on opposing conceptions of the self.
Whereas liberals conceive of the self as essentially unencumbered and
free to choose among a wide range of alternatives, communitarians insist that
the self is situated in and constituted by tradition, membership in a
historically rooted community. Liberals
regard tradition as a collection of prejudices that prevent the individual from
understanding his own needs. They
exalt cosmopolitanism over provincialism which in their eyes encourages
conformity and intolerance. Communitarians, on the other hand, reply that
“intolerance flourishes most,” in the words of Michael Sandel, “where
forms of life are dislocated, roots unsettled, traditions undone.”
Communitarians share with the Right an opposition to
bureaucracy, but they don’t stop with an attack on governmental bureaucracy;
they are equally sensitive to the spread of corporate bureaucracy in the
misnamed private sector. Indeed
they tend to reject the conventional distinction between the public and the
private realm, which figures so prominently both in the liberal tradition
and in the tradition of economic individualism which now calls itself
conservatism (with little warrant). Both
liberals and conservatives adhere to the same empty ideal of freedom as privacy;
they disagree only about what is truly private.
For liberals and “radicals,” it is freedom of religion, freedom of
speech, freedom of sexual preference that need to be protected, whereas those
who call themselves conservatives value economic freedom more highly.
The Left understands private life as primarily cultural, the Right as
primarily economic. Communitarianism rejects both the left-wing and the
right-wing version of the cult of privacy; and the promise of communitarian
thought is already suggested by the difficulty of situating it on the
conventional political spectrum. It
breaks out of the deadlock between welfare liberalism and economic
individualism, the opposition of which has informed so much of our politics in
the past. Instead of setting up the
protection of private judgment as the summit of political virtue, the
communitarian point of view shows just how much the individual owes, not only
“society” that abstraction routinely invoked by the Left—but to the
concrete associations (in both senses of the word) without which we would
be unable to develop any sense of personal identity at all.
Lichtman and Rubin are right about one thing: this
position is “dangerous,” a word that comes easily to both these timid souls.
It is dangerous, of course, not because it comforts the Right at
the expense of the Left, but because it gives no comfort to either.
It discloses the core of assumptions common to the Left and the Right and
thus dissolves the conventional and inconclusive debate between them. It dissolves all the stock answers, throws open’ the doors
and windows, and forces political discussion out into the open
air—always a danger for tender plants bred in the greenhouse.
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