Tuesday, August 16, 2016

True And Only Heaven

If there’s a common theme in the news this year, from Brexit to Donald Trump, it’s that these things shouldn’t be happening in 2016. It’s what Obama means when he says that we are on the right side of history, or that a country is acting in 19th century fashion. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. There may be people standing athwart history yelling stop, but their cause is ultimately a losing one. In “The True And Only Heaven”, Christopher Lasch isn’t just yelling stop. He’s saying there’s nothing to stand athwart, and all that movement is nothing more than an illusion. Lasch wrote the book in 1991, but it explains more about our political climate than just about anything written today.

He sees Democrats and Republicans, and more broadly progressives and conservatives, as two sides of the same coin. They are all fruit from the same tree of classical liberalism, and the book traces its intellectual history from the Enlightenment to the present day. Lasch is more concerned with the history of ideas than the history of people, highlighting philosophers and thinkers rather than politicians and generals, telling a vastly different story than the ones found in history books. He assumes a level of familiarity with writers, from Carlyle to Sorel, that most schools no longer teach, so the book doubles as a graduate level course in political philosophy. He has a way of breaking down complicated subject matter and teasing out its implications to clarify even the most obscure points.

For Lasch, our problems start with the breakdown of moral authority, and the fundamental degradation of work in modern society. He speaks for the people “who could no longer hope for some honorable line of work that would make the best use of their abilities, provide them with satisfaction that comes with the exercise of responsibility, and bring them some measure of financial security and public appreciation. Success was no longer to be had on such terms. The ‘best and brightest’ were those who knew how to exploit institutions for their own advantage and to make exceptions for themselves instead of playing by the rules.” Long before the crash of the internet and housing bubbles, Lasch was harping on the unequal distribution of income and the lack of middle-class jobs. 

The only solutions our political process has been able to devise are redistributing income, rolling back governmental regulations and pointing at Netflix and shrugging. These issues go way beyond politics, delving into the fundamental nature of our economy and the structure of our society. But is ‘let them eat iPhones’ a sustainable strategy? In other words, what happens after Trump? Is he the last gasp of a dying culture, or a harbinger of what is to come? Should we just accept that middle class jobs are not coming back? What happens to our society if more education is not a panacea, only trapping an entire generation in student loan debt they can never pay back, creating another bubble? Is history really destined to go in only one direction?

That view of history has roots in Christian thought, which sees history as the story of God interacting with the world and progressing to a final judgment. Americans still view history as a powerful force moving towards a final outcome, but we have removed God from the equation. Instead of a story about man accepting his place in the universe and moving towards harmony with his creator, history becomes the story of man transcending limits through technological and cultural innovation. Even if there is no return to Eden at the end of the rainbow, things will keep getting better. All we have to do is look around.

Lasch asks us to look around more closely. He touches on Henry George’s cyclical view of history, which says 1) the accumulation of wealth leads to inequality so that 2) advanced civilizations have an increasingly idle ruling class that 3) becomes top-heavy and collapses under its own weight and therefore 4) the history of civilization is one of advance and decline. Now compare that with the idea that technological progress in the wake of the Industrial Revolution has lead us to a post-scarcity society where we will be able to divvy up abundance and live in harmony now that we are at the End of History thanks to the triumph of Western liberal democracy.

His ultimate argument is that classical liberalism isn’t sustainable because it ignores the reality of limits and underestimates the power of particularism. Movements like communism fail because they assume an international solidarity of workers when people are inherently loyal to family, place and tribe. Modern cosmopolitans think they have transcended tribalism when they are really part of the most powerful tribe of them all. There will always be an “in” group and there will always be an “out” group, and any ideology based on the idea that we can transcend our differences is ultimately doomed to failure because it doesn’t grapple with the reality of the human condition.

“The True And Only Heaven” is a challenging read because it’s hard to relate to someone who rejects the Enlightenment. In the same way that it would be difficult to explain water to a fish, we are so steeped in the assumptions of classical liberalism we can scarcely imagine a world without it. It’s probably how devout Catholics felt when Martin Luther pegged his complaints to the door of a chapel. Questioning the way things are done is an inherently unpopular business, so it’s no surprise Lasch slipped out of the popular consciousness since his death in 1994. Things have gotten crazier since, but Lasch is saying it’s all a matter of perspective. Maybe the world hasn’t gone mad. Maybe our society always was.