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The Dialectic of Love and Authority

Christopher Lasch on the family

If irony alerts had been invented before 1977, they might have saved Christopher Lasch a lot of grief. The title of his controversial book Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged misled many of his critics. Lasch was widely taken to mean that a haven is what the family used to be before it was besieged by feminism and sexual liberation. Feminists retorted that this was a nostalgic fiction: the traditional family had never been any such idyll, especially for women. Lasch could only be an apologist for patriarchy, misappropriating psychoanalytic theory in a reactionary effort to restore male authority. Reviewing Lasch’s final, posthumous collection, Women and the Common Life, the usually astute Ellen Willis took him to task for his “fail[ure] to take patriarchy seriously” and his “adamant denial of any redeeming social value in modern liberalism.” No doubt this had the long-suffering Lasch growling in his grave.

Haven in a Heartless World is a densely argued book, and Lasch himself was not certain what his arguments implied, practically. (He died in his prime, at sixty-one, before he could spell out the programmatic implications of his far-reaching critique of modernity.) But far from idealizing the nuclear family, Lasch portrayed it as a doomed adaptation to industrial development. The transition from household production to mass production inaugurated a new world—a heartless world, to which the ideology of the family as a domestic sanctuary, a haven, was one response. The premodern, preindustrial family was besieged (and vanquished) by market forces; the modern family is besieged by the “helping” (which has turned out to mean “controlling”) professions. The latter development—the subordination of the family to the authority of a therapeutic ideology and an impersonal bureaucracy—is the story told in Haven in a Heartless World and its successors, the very well-known Culture of Narcissism and the not very well-known The Minimal Self.

Lasch makes extensive use of psychoanalytic theory, whose intellectual reputation stands pretty low nowadays. But it’s not necessary to enroll in the church of High Freudianism in order to find Lasch’s account plausible. Belief in ego, superego, and id is optional; the essential thing is to recognize that our minds have a deep structure—an unconscious—formed very early and subsequently difficult to access. The unconscious is the mold of our character, which is our usual pattern of action and reaction. In Lasch’s formulation:

Far from idealizing the nuclear family,
Christopher Lasch portrayed it as a doomed
adaptation to industrial development.

As the chief agency of “socialization,” the family reproduces cultural patterns in the individual. It not only imparts ethical norms, providing the child with his first instruction in the prevailing social rules, it profoundly shapes his character, in ways of which he is not even aware. . . . The union of love and discipline in the same persons, the mother and father, creates a highly charged environment in which the child learns lessons he will never get over—not necessarily the explicit lessons his parents wish him to master. He develops an unconscious predisposition to act in certain ways and to re-create in later life, in his relations with lovers and authorities, his earliest experiences. Parents first embody love and power, and each of their actions conveys to the child, quite independently of their overt intentions, the injunctions and constraints by means of which society attempts to organize experience. If reproducing culture were simply a matter of formal instruction and discipline, it could be left to the schools. But it also requires that culture be embedded in personality. Socialization makes the individual want to do what he has to do; and the family is the agency to which society entrusts this complex and delicate task.

Different personalities are adaptive in different societies; what one “has to do” varies according to the prevailing relations of authority. And since families are the means by which societies form personalities, the family’s structure and dynamics alter in response to social change. Changes in economic and political life, like the rise of capitalism and the nation-state, “reverberate in the individual’s inner being.”

On Good Authority

For better and worse, modern parents are far more sensitive to outside influences than their premodern predecessors. Arranged marriages are now all but unknown in developed societies, corporal punishment is virtually obsolete, and the sexual double standard is under heavy fire. Meanwhile, each child’s respect for diversity and, of course, self-esteem is diligently cultivated. And all these changes are enforced or encouraged by an array of professionals and agencies. All good; but this anxious, busy solicitude comes at a price: authority is no longer localized in a self-sufficient household that controls its own subsistence and work rhythms. According to Lasch, this displacement of authority from the child’s immediate environment to far-removed, abstract entities—the state, the corporation, the medical and educational bureaucracies—makes it harder for the child to achieve emotional independence. Love is necessary but not sufficient; “love without authority,” Lasch wrote, “does not make a conscience.”

Why? Psychoanalytic theory offers a speculative but intricate and coherent explanation. Because the human brain is more complex and slower to mature than any other mammal’s, the human infant is uniquely helpless at birth, unable to distinguish between itself and the rest of the world. It cannot distinguish between the source of its needs (its own body) and the source of their satisfaction (mainly its mother), which gives rise to a feeling of omnipotence. When some of those needs eventually go unmet, the infant becomes aware of its separation from the rest of the world, and in particular from its parents, which gives rise to helplessness and rage. Gradually it dawns on the infant that the source of its gratifications and the source of its frustrations are the same: the parents. This recognition is bewildering and intolerable; it cannot be coped with, only repressed.

The family, in whatever form, can only thrive within a healthy psychic ecology.

The return of the repressed, either as symptom or as fantasy, is inescapable: this is the psychoanalytic equivalent of the law of gravity or the conservation of energy. And precisely because the infant is so helpless, its fantasies—of undifferentiated union with its parents, of annihilating them, or of being annihilated by them—are, by way of compensation, outsized. If the infant is to live with these conflicting impulses and the ambivalence they generate, it must scale them down, reduce them to life-sized, manageable proportions.

Throughout human history until industrialization—that is, until seven or eight generations ago—children had the everyday experience of watching their parents at work, where they were seen to make mistakes and also to possess useful skills that they were willing to teach. This reduced the idealized or demonized parents of the child’s fantasies to life size. Even more important, the regular experience of love and punishment from the same source taught a vital lesson: that those with the ultimate authority over the child could be trusted, and that their disapproval did not threaten the child’s very existence. This fundamental, gradually accumulating emotional security enabled the child to slough off archaic fantasies and grow up. When the ultimate authority in a child’s life is no longer localized in a pair of adult humans but rather is invested in abstractions like a company or a social-welfare bureaucracy, those fantasies persist. The child’s ambivalence toward authority has no focus and so can’t be put to rest. Later in life, still plagued by these unconscious specters, the adult develops what Lasch identified as the neurotic personality trait of our time: narcissism.

“Narcissism” has an everyday and a psychoanalytic meaning. A story in the September 4 New York Times illustrates the everyday meaning: “The political rise of Donald J. Trump has drawn attention to one personality trait in particular: narcissism. Although narcissism does not lend itself to a precise definition, most psychologists agree that it comprises self-centeredness, boastfulness, feelings of entitlement and a need for admiration.” Trump is certainly a narcissist in this sense, but the psychoanalytic sense is different: a weak, beleaguered self rather than an overbearing, assertive one. A disciple of Lasch’s (i.e., me) has described the narcissistic personality in these terms:

wary of intimate, permanent relationships, which entail dependence and thus may trigger infantile rage; beset by feelings of inner emptiness and unease . . . ; preoccupied with personal “growth” and the consumption of novel sensations; prone to alternating self-images of grandiosity and abjection; liable to feel toward everyone in authority the same combination of rage and terror that the infant feels for whoever it depends on; unable to identify emotionally with past and future generations and therefore unable to accept the prospect of aging, decay, and death.

At least in Lasch’s time, the clinical literature was rife with descriptions of symptoms like these, replacing the obsessional and hysterical neuroses of Freud’s time as the most common forms of psychological distress.

Human Scale

The discerning reader will have noticed that the foregoing account of emotional development is almost entirely sex-neutral. Roles and functions are not assigned by gender. There is no sexual division of labor, no Oedipus complex, no penis envy. “The emotional underpinnings of the formation of conscience are universal,” Lasch emphasized. “The crucial experiences are those of fear of separation, of dependence and helplessness—the infant’s discovery that he lives in a world that is not completely secure and dependable.”

This is not a single-mindedly Freudian account. For all his reliance on psychoanalytic categories, Lasch said clearly that “what is crucial in my view . . . is not the division of sex roles inside the family, in terms of which parent provides authority or love, but the division of labor in society, which has relieved the family of all [economic, educational and authoritative] functions.” Lasch may or may not have been a feminist, depending on whether one’s standard is John Stuart Mill or Andrea Dworkin. But he fully acknowledged the justice of women’s claims for economic and sexual equality. He was unruffled by the (then distant) prospect of gay marriage. His only consistent policy proposal was that the contemporary notion of career be redefined to make parenting and professional success fully compatible—to “make it possible for both men and women to work more flexible hours, shorter hours and, when possible—through technological advances like personal computers and fax machines—to work at home.” This is not an antifeminist agenda.

It was not feminism but mass production, political centralization, and the ideology of endless growth and ever-increasing consumption that had placed impossible strains on the family and made psychological maturity so difficult, Lasch argued. Every organism can flourish only within limits, at a certain scale. We have, in our social relations of authority and production, abandoned human scale, and the psychic costs are great.

The hyperconnected life, for all its allure, is a centrifugal force.

The main developments of the last few decades, the information revolution and the triumph of neoliberalism, have only intensified the pressures besieging the family. Increased economic insecurity and the robotization of work—the central strategies of neoliberalism—have undermined the authority and self-confidence of parents still further and confronted adolescents with the prospect of adulthood as a war of all against all. Inside and outside the classroom, a tidal wave of advertising-saturated media aims to enlist children as fledgling consumers. The internet and social media diminish interaction among family members, especially across generations, while face-to-face encounters, with their greater emotional immediacy, are less and less the default mode of communication among adolescents. The hyperconnected life, for all its allure, is a centrifugal force.

The family, in whatever form, can only thrive within a healthy psychic ecology. It has gradually dawned on everyone who does not have a financial interest in denying it that massively tinkering with our physical environment is bound to have drastic effects on public health. It’s taking even longer to recognize that the same is true of our mental environment. The unending flood of commercial messaging, utterly empty of information or art, resembles the miasma of toxic particulates that infect the air of even the most developed countries. The continual stream of social messaging is analogous, in its lack of nourishing substance, to the ubiquitously available junk food that none of us can help succumbing to occasionally. The automation of work and the financialization of the economy leave most of us as bewildered and vulnerable as the progress of science and technology leave all but the intellectual elite, who can actually understand the seemingly magical forces that make our more sophisticated machines run.

It is just as the environmentalists (and, come to think of it, the Marxists and the Freudians) say: Everything is connected. Pull on one thread and the whole fabric unravels. To strengthen the family, we must rethink the division of labor, which means reevaluating productivity, efficiency, and growth, which means challenging the distribution of economic power and wealth. We may even need new conceptions of “rights,” “individuality,” and “freedom.”

An equal share for men and women or whites and blacks in administering a toxic society is hardly a worthwhile goal, and certainly not a radical one. Answering Lasch’s criticism of contemporary feminism, Ellen Willis wrote in 1997: “Since the ’60s . . . a major current of feminist thinking has criticized careerism and called for a restructuring of work.” If that current is still alive, and if it hopes to get beyond leaning in, it will need to incorporate Lasch’s critique of progress as expanded consumption and his insistence on limits and human scale.