Over the past half-decade, few intellectuals have undergone a renaissance like Christopher Lasch — and few renaissances have been quite as startlingly heterodox. After the 2016 election, Lasch’s posthumous 1994 book Revolt of the Elites was cited as a key influence on the Right-populist strategist Steve Bannon. Shortly after that, a new edition of the author’s 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism appeared with an introduction by liberal pundit E.J. Dionne that applied Lasch’s ideas to the pathologies of Bannon’s erstwhile boss, then-president Donald Trump.

Since then, writers from the Right, Left, and centre have all offered appreciative reassessments of his work, again focused mainly on The Culture of Narcissism and Revolt of the Elites. A third book, however, published 40 years ago this year, has received comparatively less attention.

The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times was framed by Lasch as a follow-up to Culture of Narcissism; his aim, in part, was to correct a widespread misapprehension that his 1979 bestseller had amounted to a secular “hellfire sermon” — as the New York Times review put it — castigating the moral failings of his contemporaries. Then-president Jimmy Carter, who invited Lasch to the White House to discuss the book, seemed to have read it this way. To Lasch’s frustration, he relayed what he took to be the book’s thesis in his famous “malaise” speech when he declared: “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.”

In the opening pages of The Minimal Self, Lasch assured his readers that, to the contrary, they would “find no indignant outcry against contemporary ‘hedonism’, self-seeking, egoism, indifference to the general good — the traits commonly associated with ‘narcissism.’” His complaint that his diagnosis of a “culture of narcissism” had been misused as “a journalistic slogan that merely restates moralistic platitudes in the jargon of psychoanalysis” holds true for many recent repurposings of his work, whether it is liberals decrying Trump as “narcissist-in-chief” or conservatives citing Revolt of the Elites while ridiculing pampered Left-wingers. What is too often absent is the dimension of Lasch’s work that avoids the satisfactions of indignation and instead invites us to understand those we find contemptible — and the deep sources of our own contempt.

Our increasing “concern with the self”, Lasch explains in The Minimal Self, “takes the form of a concern with its psychic survival”. The issue with the contemporary narcissist, in other words, isn’t that he demands too much, but too little. “Under siege,” Lasch wrote, “the self contracts to a defensive core, armed against adversity.” This “minimal or narcissistic self,” he goes on, “seeks both self-sufficiency and self-annihilation: opposite aspects of the same archaic experience of oneness with the world.” The underside of what looks like narcissistic grandiosity is an implacable “sense of inner emptiness”.

The error of the “moralistic indictment of ‘consumerism’”, Lasch argued, was the failure to see it “as part of a larger pattern of dependence, disorientation, and loss of control”. This pattern derives from the fundamental modern restructuring of social, economic, and political life into systems far too vast for anyone to comprehend, much less exert any control over. Adrift in “a world of giant bureaucracies, information overload, and complex, interlocking technological systems vulnerable to sudden breakdown”. individuals have lost “confidence in their capacity to understand and shape the world and provide for their own needs”.

“The underside of what looks like narcissistic grandiosity is an implacable ‘sense of inner emptiness’.”

Liberal commentators trying to make sense of the 2016 election weren’t wrong to find in Lasch’s analysis of narcissism, as Dionne put it, “unflattering jolts of recognition about Trump himself — the lover of praise, the seeker after friendly audiences, the creator of a world in which he is always at the centre”. But too often, they fell into the moralising Lasch strove to avoid in their treatment of the President and of his followers, whom they framed as grasping, self-absorbed white men wounded by their declining power and privilege — a theme most recently reiterated in the controversial book White Rural Rage. The issue isn’t that there’s nothing whatsoever to this description: rural whites, like other demographics, are indeed reeling from what Lasch called the “diminishing expectations” of the present era, as is evident in the rise of deaths of despair. But the moralising accusation of narcissism obscures the deeper sources of such collective pathologies, as well as the extent to which the accusers exhibit comparable symptoms.

A less selective reading of Lasch helps to account for what many pundits take to be the great enigma of the 2024 election cycle: how is it that a man assailed by trials and scandals that would have long since tanked the career of many politicians before him retains a lead in most polling? The answer is that the once-and-possibly-future “narcissist-in-chief” dramatises more vividly than any other public figure the beleaguered condition of the self under present conditions. His enduring hold on his followers, as well as his ability to broaden his appeal to demographics previously claimed by his rivals, speaks to the general retreat of more aspirational political sensibilities in favour of what Lasch called “the imagery of victimisation and paranoia, of being manipulated, invaded, colonised, and inhabited by alien forces”. Trump’s key achievement, in this regard, is simply survival — in the face of the overwhelming forces arrayed against him.

That the “survivalist” vision identified by Lasch four decades ago extends far beyond Trump and his supporters can be seen in the way his most fervent opponents appeal to it as well. Upon his election in 2016, they published endless guides to “surviving Trump”, and we can be sure this genre will be revived in the event of a second term. As an ACLU official recently told The Atlantic: “All we must do is survive four years.” And yet, because his liberal opponents are busy casting Trump in the role of would-be dictator, they often can’t see why many who share their general feeling of besieged helplessness might appreciate a figure who seems to withstand a constant onslaught by his enemies with verve and humour.

It isn’t surprising that Lasch’s sobering vision was forgotten until recently. The same year The Minimal Self appeared, Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign ran one of the most famous ads in the history of presidential contests: “Morning in America.” The ad boasted of Reagan’s record of taming inflation and lowering interest rates, declaring that “our country is prouder and stronger and better”. Reagan went on to win 49 states and, over the subsequent decade, America came out on top in the Cold War while its booming tech industry fuelled a new era of growth that consigned the dark years of “malaise” to oblivion. There was nothing minimal about America’s ambitions at the high point of unipolar hegemony: rather than a retreat into pessimistic survivalism, at least up until the financial crash of 2008, the greatest risks facing the nation were overconfidence and overreach, from the housing bubble to the Global War on Terror.

Today’s Lasch renaissance, then, reflects a return to the bleak conditions the author evoked when he described how “American technology is no longer the most advanced; the country’s industrial plant is decrepit; its city streets and transport systems are falling to pieces”. Whether they promise to “make America great again” or to “build back better”, our leaders aren’t oblivious to this predicament. But when they encounter obstacles — the Deep State, congressional gridlock, or the many other abstract systems even the most powerful of us must contend with — it is far easier to retreat into the minimalist politics of survival and promise to fend off the feared enemy for a few more years. The indefinite perpetuation of this despondent state of affairs — and not the other spectres so often conjured up by political fearmongers of all stripes — is the gravest danger we face.

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Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: https://unherd.com/