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What Democracy Requires

· The Lede

Catherine Tumber Remembers Christopher Lasch

Christopher Lasch was spared the Web-powered digital onslaught that seized the world soon after his death, but he surely saw the code on the wall. It’s as if the tech watchwords that have permeated our common life—”Disruptive Innovation,” “Move Fast and Break Things,” “frictionless change,” “Information Wants to Be Free,” the very name YouTube—were tailor-made to defy his lifelong soundings on the moral fragility of democratic self-government.

Although he didn’t write often about technology per se, Lasch was critical of the widespread view that it is inherently good, inevitable, and spurs “moral progress.” And he was drawn to thinkers who swam against the tide of technological determinism, from Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich to Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Lewis Mumford. Reading the range of issues he engaged from the vantage of today’s tech-besotted world should prompt resistance to the casual digitization of everything in sight, which mows down all that is shapely, surprising, and honorable in democratic culture.

To the frustration of even some admirers, Lasch was not prescriptive but exploratory, alive to shifting historical tensions in the formation of culture, character, and public debate. He disparaged academic specialization as of a piece with the weaknesses of liberal culture, reflecting ideas and structures that merely mirror those of the capitalist market both privately and in (what’s left of) the public sphere. His interdisciplinary shifts of emphasis—from neo-Marxist foreign policy and sociology to his use of psychoanalytic theory to capture the narcissistic drift of postwar American culture, and theological debate to piece together an American populist intellectual tradition—reveal recurrent themes that run counter to the algorithmic precision that clings to us like quicksand today.

Threaded throughout Lasch’s work is a reckoning with the limits—physical, metaphysical, phenomenological—imposed on the human condition. If his tone reads as unnecessarily dour to liberals, “progressives,” and self-proclaimed conservatives, that’s a pretty good sign that they share Tech World’s presumption of endless “positive” growth. Such optimistic fatalism has not only blurred traditions of thought rooted in hope and humility—it has distorted our understanding of the very nature of democratic freedom, offering only two accounts of its enactment: liberatory or libertarian.

To Lasch’s way of thinking, freedom is not itself an end (and thus endless). It is, rather, bounded by structures of meaning shaped by human judgment hewn from what Arendt called “necessity.” In democratic culture, freedom is contained by various forms of debate in the public realm, the cultivation of emotionally rich autonomy in oneself and in the coming generations, and a vigorous sense of fair play. In today’s world, after many decades of democratic corrosion (traced carefully by Lasch over the course of his life) digital expansion into every nook and cranny of human endeavor has accelerated these distortions of freedom with astonishing breadth and dispatch.

The illusion of unlimited, unrestricted growth fuels the mood of unappeasable indignation underwriting our severely polarized politics. Consequences of a more material nature stem from the tech industry itself—its disruptive search-and-destroy business models, its eye-popping wealth accumulation, and the obscene wealth inequality it has fostered in concert with also-newly-emergent industry partner, private equity. Written in 1993, the last full year of Lasch’s life and just before widespread use of the internet, his final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy registered the dangers, warning that democracy requires “rough equality”—both on the ground and in aspiration. Instead, the two industries have worked hand-in-glove, with deregulatory bipartisan support, in a giddy mood of “irrational exuberance,” peddling frictionless change and so-called free access while stripping out value and jobs from industries vital to the “rough equality” of democratic order. Meanwhile, productive work was summarily downgraded as insufficiently “smart” and shipped overseas, as the twin baronies of innovation set about upending housing markets, retail, and hospitality, among others, and absolutely decimating local news gathering—a crucial safeguard of democratic accountability. Today, entire cities are “news deserts.”

In a word, the digital world is invasive, consistent with yet exceeding that advanced by the “parasites of Monopoly Power,” in the late-nineteenth-century populist movement’s memorable words. “Before rushing blindly into the computer age,” Lasch wrote in 1984, “we need to remind ourselves that events have already falsified most of the predictions about ‘post-industrial society.’” Rather than creating an abundance of skilled “knowledge” jobs for the college educated and eradicating dirty work, he argued, it has deskilled and destabilized the workforce while eliminating the cultivation of judgment from both schools and the workplace. “Everything we know about technological ‘progress’ indicates that it promotes inequality and political centralization.”

The internet has generated new, far more portable invasive forms and greased the skids for older ones that Lasch had already brought under scrutiny. A sharp critic of consumer culture, with its mass-market delivery conduits running from celebrity-enshrining magazines to radio and television, Lasch was particularly attentive to its divisive effects on families —sites of childhood nurture and character formation and (even without children) essential bulwarks against the corrosive grind of the capitalist market. In its development of “free content” in exchange for aggressively marketed attention-demanding screen time, the internet super-charged business strategies that eroded family bonds—generational market segmentation, the revaluing of entirely new skills and knowledge transmitted independent of parental guidance, the exhausting unprecedented pace of digital obsolescence—and that, as Lasch painstakingly explained, had been undertaken since at least the 1920s. That unrestricted access is merely a regrettable byproduct of the wonders of social media—that only “digital natives” are now employable—would not likely have surprised him.

When I first encountered Lasch’s writing as a dazed-and-confused mid-’70s college student, I felt suddenly located, as though a friend had reached through the muck of sectarian left infighting and therapeutic psycho-spiritual babble and pulled me up to stable land. What Lasch offered, very broadly speaking, was the view that moral principles are not entirely fixed across time and place, but that they’re hardly fluid either. The manner and language we use to engage life’s moral underpinnings is dependent on structures that embed freedom, be it the private realm of family and friends or the public realm of political disputation. It’s a given, Lasch understood, that these human-made worlds often conflict—within and with one another. And this is why we need a sturdy sense of self, forged from the helpless narcissism of infancy, that can withstand life’s heartbreaking limitations and discordant notes, and even draw from them sources of esthetic expression and spiritual strength.

For all the optimism that roundly greeted the digital dispensation, it’s become clear that its tentacles—reaching deep into both the private and public domains, disfiguring truth and exposing the innocent and unsuspecting to sexual and commercial predators—must be trimmed. As Lasch argued in The True and Only Heaven, facing such challenges requires not fundamentally passive optimism but hard-won hope. Only a hopeful disposition rooted in faith in a world that will outlive us can ground the moral courage, imagination, and judgment we must summon during this period of multiple challenges to democratic self-government. For those stumbling around stunned by the losses inflicted by digital “progress,” Lasch’s work still offers the steadying hand of a clear-eyed friend. Grab hold.

Catherine Tumber holds a doctorate in U.S. social and cultural history from the University of Rochester, where she studied with Christopher Lasch. Her books include American Feminism and the Birth of New Age Spirituality: Searching for the Higher Self 1875-1915 and Small Gritty and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in the Baffler, Boston Review, Raritan, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, The Nation, the Washington Post, The American Prospect, Wilson Quarterly, Architectural Record, and In These Times.

This essay originally appeared at Current on February 14, 2024.

I’ll Be Your Mirror :: The Velvet Underground

The Information :: Beck

We Don’t Talk Anymore :: Cliff Richard

Optimism :: Jacob Garchik

Communication :: Bobby Womack

Communication Breakdown :: Led Zeppelin