The Agonist Journal

The Irish author Angela Nagle is reviled on the left because, among other ideological sins such as “nuance” and “being non-programmatic,” she counters the Whiggish self-conception of progressive ideological history. This is a self-flattering notion, underscored more by implication than explicitly stated, for reasons which should become obvious. For the contemporary left, the concerns it has and the positions it holds at this very moment have always been progressive positions, and furthermore, have been fought for by generations of dedicated revolutionaries. What is good now has always been so. What is evil is ancient and has always been considered the enemy. Or to crib a cultural reference, we have always been at war with Eastasia. Not so, says Nagle. In an essay for American Affairs, “The left Case Against Open Borders,” she inconveniently argues that

The transformation of open borders into a “left” position is a very new phenomenon and runs counter to the history of the organized left in fundamental ways. Open borders has long been a rallying cry of the business and free market Right. Drawing from neoclassical economists, these groups have advocated for liberalizing migration on the grounds of market rationality and economic freedom. They oppose limits on migration for the same reasons that they oppose restrictions on the movement of capital. The Koch-funded Cato Institute, which also advocates lifting legal restrictions on child labor, has churned out radical open borders advocacy for decades, arguing that support for open borders is a fundamental tenet of libertarianism, and “Forget the wall already, it’s time for the U.S. to have open borders.” The Adam Smith Institute has done much the same, arguing that “Immigration restrictions make us poorer.”

She goes on to point out that such leftists in good standing as Bernie Sanders and Cesar Chavez have pushed back against the notion of open borders, and from what their generations, at least, would have considered left wing positions. Nagle’s essay is a usefully condensed case study in what Christopher Lasch spent his entire career illustrating, albeit in a much more thorough and methodical way: Since Progressivism has no fixed goals to progress towards, it composes itself out of bric-a-bac. Progressivism is a constantly churning vortex of cultural artifacts, a bright miasma meant to make people forget that their causes de jour consist mostly of yesterday’s lesser evils.

“According to Lasch, the progressive cliche of the obsolete family is right, but it is right for the wrong reasons.”

A concrete example might be the left’s embrace of bureaucracy, historically an enemy (or at least given lip service as one) of radical ideology. Or the “living wage,” a pathetic substitute for freedom from wage slavery itself. Without transcendent principles, moral projects tend to knot themselves into unsatisfying substitutes and Gordian knots of contradiction. Something Lasch underscores throughout his entire body of work, but particularly in books such as Haven in a Heartless World and The True and Only Heaven, is that the left often fools itself into thinking it represents the opposite of libertarian or market-driven ideology: when in fact it not only mimics the worst excesses of the atomized, borderless, everyman-a-consumer-style worldview, it often represents the very bleeding edge of the hyper-capitalist logos. Nowhere is this strange delusion more evident than in the left’s notion of the family.

What is the purpose of the family, anyway? According to progressive cliche, there is none, except to serve as a superannuated expression of patriarchal control—a place where women and children are made into terrified targets of a brutal yet anodyne regime of day to day oppression. The roots of this hysterical paranoia about the male head of household go at least as deep as Plato, who in his ideal city abdicated the responsibility of child rearing to the state, but the stem of the idea shoots up through the rise of materialism, the French Revolution, the Marxist dialectic, Postmodernism, and eventually blossoms into contemporary identity politics. Tracing the lineage of an idea isn’t so simple, but the analogy generally works. Above all, the reduction of the family to male oppression helps us to see how at every historical step the left’s purportedly radical desires have served as a kind of strange, carnivalesque reflection of the ideal conditions for the next stage of economic “development.” Just as Marxism and 19th-century capitalism were haunted by the same obsession with limitless production and an abiding faith in the replacement of God with technology, so today’s postmodern jumble of ad hoc ideology conveys the same borderless spirit of what philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls “bare life”: that is, merely working and merely living with no distance or personality to separate one person from another or one country from another. Behold a smooth and frictionless nihilism wherein the psyche of each person represents the bland fluidity of the global marketplace itself. Of course there’s no room for the family in this new world. There’s no room for unchosen responsibility or chthonic bonds in our digital hellscape. The perfection of consumerism requires the abolition of all higher meaning.

Lasch understands all of this and is sensitive to its sweetest ironies. Specifically, he teaches us that present clichés were typically yesterday’s straw men. George Scialabba insightfully summarizes how Lasch relates this to the family:

[F]ar 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.

According to Lasch, the progressive cliche of the obsolete family is right, but it is right for the wrong reasons. The notion of the cloistered, nuclear family, the titular “haven in a heartless world,” was itself a response to the atomizing horrors of industrialization. Before industrialization, families were larger, multi-generational, and very much integrated into social, community, and economic life. For quite literally countless generations, children watched their parents work and usually the workplace was also home. Industrialization, among other factors, explodes this ancient version of the homestead, scattering large and highly self-sufficient groups into what we know as the atomic family. These sub-units were then, in the post-industrial West, no longer localized or very self-sufficient. Authority itself, as experienced by children especially, is transferred from the immediate environment to far-off abstract entities: “the state, the corporation, the medical and educational bureaucracies,” as Scialabba lists them.

This strange drift of authority away from the concrete and immediate surroundings makes it that much more difficult for the child to properly individuate and achieve something like emotional and psychological independence. The affection of the nuclear parents is not enough if they do not embody a real authority. In Lasch’s words, “Love without authority does not make a conscience.” What it does create is a narcissist, a personality type which Lasch defines as

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.

This could also be the description of the emotional makeup of the ideal consumer.

Of course, these contradictions were not entirely unnoticed even by thinkers on the left. Lasch writes in Haven in a Heartless World:

From the beginning, these ideas coexisted, especially in the work of Max Horkheimer and T.W. Adorno, with a growing awareness that changes in personality organization, which all these theorists saw as having laid the psychological basis for fascism and other forms of political repression, derived not from the power of familial authority but from its collapse.

There was always, even among the most entrenched revolutionary thinkers, the faint traces of awareness that the authoritarian family which they railed against, and all the so-called puritanical morality and sexual repression which it represented, was in some way not the cause of the disfigured personality but the last redoubt in a defense against the social conditions which exacerbated it. In an important passage in Haven Lasch observes:

The gradual erosion of authoritarianism and the authoritarian family, which went on throughout the liberal phase of the bourgeois society, has had an unexpected outcome: the reestablishment of political despotism in a form based not on the family but on its dissolution. Instead of liberating the individual from external coercion, the decay of family life subjects him to new forms of domination, while at the same time weakening his ability to resist them. The reasons for this result were best stated by Horkheimer himself when he noted that the bourgeois family is related to society “in an antagonistic no less than a promotive way” and that it “not only educates for authority in bourgeois society: it also cultivates the dream of a better condition for mankind.” The “complicated historical process in which coercion was partially interiorized” gave rise to a crippling sense of guilt, according to Horkheimer, but it also gave rise to ideals by which bourgeois society itself stood condemned. The restriction of sexual intercourse to marriage required “frightful coercion,” but “the romantic love which arose in the course of such regulation is a social phenomenon which can drive the individual into opposition to or even a break with society.”

This acute description is even more applicable in our own time, when the decline of family and its attendant transcendental ideals have accompanied a mass de-sanctification of sex. The result has been de jour promiscuity. As Slavoj Zizek has said, “Today, passionate engagement is considered almost pathological. I think there is something subversive in saying: This is the man or woman with whom I want to stake everything.” Once again, the so-called reactionary forces of hearth and home are defending a more radical position than progressives, whose dreams of abolishing the erotic distance required to fully flourish in the world simultaneously represent the bleeding edge of louche capitalist adventurism. A million dating apps rise up from its “bare life” logic. As Lasch put it, “The reality that has triumphed over pleasure in the name of pleasure itself—a debased and commercialized leisure organized by the same forces that have debased work—completes the irony that the individual’s subjection to new forms of coercion rests on his ‘emancipation.’”

Lasch, who generally uses a kind of un-orthodox psychoanalytical vocabulary in much of his mid-1970s work, loathes the effects permissiveness has on the formation of personality. When the tangible, accessible authority of parents gets outsourced to remote institutions (typically professional monopolies), the child does not have anything solid to form himself with, for, and against. And so he fantasizes. Or rather, his fantasies become unhinged and unchecked. Authority itself comes to seem like a mysterious force, invisible yet all-powerful, like gravity. Finally, the child comes to “see the world to be starkly divided between power and impotence, and reduces all questions of justice and morality to questions of strength.” Though Lasch wrote those words in the mid-70’s, they could be applied to any embittered and confused campus crusader tweeting today. The fear of power, or the resentment of those who old it, ultimately manifests as a fear of passion and a disdain for the traditionally erotic, which requires imbalance, negotiation, drama, and more than a little mystery. Like an oracle Lasch wrote in Haven:

The contemporary cult of sensuality implies a repudiation of sensuality in all but its most primitive forms. The fascination with personal relations, which becomes increasingly intense as the hope of political solutions recedes, conceals a thoroughgoing disenchantment with personal relations. Ideologies of impulse gratification and pleasure seeking gain the ascendancy at the very moment that pleasure loses its savor. A narcissistic withdrawal of interest from the external world underlies both the demand for immediate gratification—resoundingly endorsed by advertising, mass promotion, and the health industry—and the intolerable anxiety that continually frustrates this demand. The more the “liberated” man clamors for fulfillment, the more he succumbs to hypochondria, to melancholy, or to a suicidal self-hatred that alternates, not with occasional heights of rapture, but with a chronic mild depression, the dominant mood of the times.

Can you think of a better description of the sad, embittered Millennials compulsively working through one-night stands, their strange fantasies of achieving perfect personal freedom shot through with depressive self-loathing and deep anxiety towards the strangers cycling through their lives?

Lasch is right to emphasize that the fever dreams of the left and the wet dreams of capitalism coalesce in the most convenient of ways. Byung-Chul Han writes that “[c]apitalism absolutizes the bare life. Its telos is not the good life.” The good life requires a solid self—Lasch would say a self forged in the loving furnace of a family—as a prerequisite. Capital seeks complete liquidity. Total effacement of solidity. The “self” should be as malleable as capital, ever-shifting according to whim. “The more often one changes one identity, the more production is dynamized,” says Han. Of course, any person experiencing such an identity—whether he is a spacekin or someone who changes genders twelve times a day—is going to be perpetually disappointed by his failed attempts at achieving limitlessness. As society has taken on the functions of the family, he rages at society to give him what he wants. In another context, Lasch writes that “Critics of the concept of ‘mental illness’ would abolish the hospital only to make the whole world a hospital.” But the chilly remoteness of society can never stand in for the intimate, formative heat of the family, and we are doomed to disappointment as a best case scenario if we actually take the bait and switch.