The Economy of Desire and the Failure of Politics

In the opening chapter of The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, Christopher Lasch explains the premise that motivated its writing: “old political ideologies have exhausted their capacity either to explain events or to inspire men and women to constructive action.”

He goes on to add that the “ideological distinctions between liberalism and conservatism no longer stand for anything or define the lines of political debate.”

In his view, both the Left and the Right, for all the “shrill and acrimonious” debate, share an underlying “belief in the desirability and inevitability of technical and economic development.” Both sides resist any talk of “limits, so threatening to those who wish to appear optimistic at all times.”

Unfortunately, according to Lasch, this program fails on at least two counts. The first regards the political consequences of maintaining “our riotous standard of living”:

“This program is self-defeating, not only because it will produce environmental effects from which even the rich cannot escape but because it will widen the gap between rich and poor nations, generate more and more violent movements of insurrection and terrorism against the West, and bring about a deterioration of the world’s political climate as threatening as the deterioration of its physical climate.”

And that was Lasch’s view in the heady, halcyon days following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The True and Only Heaven was published in 1991. From where we stand, it would appear to be a rather prescient paragraph.

The other count on which the shared premise fails amounts to a misreading of the human condition. Historic liberalism, dating back to Adam Smith, presumed that “human wants, being insatiable, required an indefinite expansion of the productive forces necessary to satisfy them.”

Consequently, “Insatiable desire, formerly condemned as a source of frustration, unhappiness, and spiritual instability, came to be seen as a powerful stimulus to economic development.” (The reading of a few old books might have tempered this radical reconsideration of desire and its fulfillment.)

Lost in the ensuing evolution of culture was a certain “moral realism” with “its understanding that everything has its price, its respect for limits, its skepticism about progress.”

Lasch passed away prematurely shortly after the publication of The True and Only Heaven. Today he is best remembered for The Culture of Narcissism and his contrarian views do not sit comfortably with either the Left or the Right (in my view, all the more reason to take him seriously).  I picked up his book to re-read his chapter on nostalgia and memory (more on that later), but as I flipped through the opening chapters I was struck by how viable Lasch’s critique remained.

For more on Lasch you might consider Eric Miller’s recent biography: Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch. If a short essay will do take a look at Patrick Deneen’s “Christopher Lasch and the Limits of Hope.”

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