A Dialogue with Christopher Lasch


  1. Christopher Lasch, “What’s Wrong With the Right?” Tikkun 1 (1987): 23-29, and
  2. Lillian Rubin, “A Feminist Response to Lasch” in ibid, 89-91, and
  3. C. Lasch, “Why the Left Has No Future,” in ibid., 92-97.

What’s Wrong with the Right?

Christopher Lasch

            In 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 left.

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.

But 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.

(Conservatives) unwittingly side with the social forces that contribute to the destruction of ‘traditional values.’

            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 consumption.

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.

“Conservatives 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.

Not 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 “godless communism,” 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 loyalties.”

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

Lillian Rubin

            It 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.

  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.

            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 children.

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.

  Feminists have offered the first new vision in many decades of what, at its best, family life could and should be.

            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 the factories.

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 perspective.

The 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.

For at least the last one hundred and fifty years, the major threat to family life has been the organization of work.

            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

Christopher Lasch

              These stale polemics, full of moral outrage and theoretical hot air, inadvertently show why the Left has no future.  Unable to explain the persistence of religion, pro-family attitudes, and an ethic of personal accountability except as an expression of false consciousness—as the product of brainwashing or of an irrational attachment to “simple and easy answers” after “two decades of social upheaval”—the Left finds itself without a following. Since it refuses to take popular attitudes seriously, to “pander” to “the existing popular consciousness,” in Lillian Rubin’s curious and revealing phrase, it can hope to reform society only in the face of popular opposition or indifference. The claim that the Left speaks for the common people no longer carries the slightest conviction.  But the effort to maintain it without conviction is demoralizing, while the effort to get along without it—to abandon the fiction of democracy and to lead the people to the promised land against their own judgment and inclinations—is still a little awkward for radicals brought up in a democratic political tradition.  Hence the note of anguish that runs through these communications, so revealing of the Leftist frame of mind.

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, for ignorance.

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.

  Unable to explain the persistence of religion, pro-family attitudes, and an ethic of personal accountability except as an expression of false consciousness…  the Left finds itself without a following.

            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 of affairs.

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.”

As 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 care.

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 pleasures.

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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