07 December 2021


Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)
Psychoanalysis and religion were even more deeply at odds than Freud's explicit rejection of religion would imply. ... Sickness and health replaced guilt, sin, and atonement as the dominant concerns guiding those who struggled to make sense of the buried life of the mind. Psychiatrists found that their practice required a suspension of moral judgment. At the very least they found it necessary to establish a permissive atmosphere in which patients could speak freely without fear of condemnation. What was appropriate in the consulting room, of course, was not necessarily appropriate in the everyday world outside... A "nonjudgmental" habit of mind, easily confused with the liberal virtue of tolerance, came to be regarded as the sine qua non of sociability.

It did not take people long to see that a therapeutic point of view could be put to social and political uses. It served to lift the burden of moral failure once associated with poverty and unemployment, to shift the blame from the individual to "society"... During the Great Depression, members of the health, education, and welfare professions were horrified to discover that many Americans, even victims of large-scale unemployment, still clung to the ethic of self-help and refused to acknowledge the individual's right to relief. Partisans of the welfare state had to persuade the public [otherwise]... [Lawrence] Frank's statement [the essay "Society as the Patient"] of the alternatives—individual accountability or "group life"—was profoundly misleading since group life itself presupposes the trust that can prevail only when individuals are held accountable for their actions. But for humanitarians shocked by mass suffering and the passivity with which Americans seemed to accept it, the first step toward recovery was to "absolve the individual from guilt," as Frank put it. The debates touched off by the Depression and the New Deal appeared to confirm the wisdom of therapeutic as opposed to ethical insights into social problems.

(pp. 217-219)

All points well taken. But if we are indeed committed to "ethical insights" rather than to "nonjudgmental" thinking, then what can be our judgment of these particular "victims of large-scale unemployment" but that they had, on the whole, not in fact been responsible for the desperateness of their own situation? This is a jeremiad against elites. What about their role in the Great Depression?

As Lasch is certainly aware, the real question is, What creates the right balance between autonomy and accountability such that citizens may legitimately judge and be judged? He tends to find the answer to such in questions more in "character" and less in "structure." This is not convincing, if only because such concepts as "character" and "individual initiative" are basically tautological in such cases; they merely reiterate (or perhaps beg) the question. He explicitly warns against lumping religion in with "culture," and it seems he does not see it as part of "structure" either. It's just out there, somewhere. The reasons he gives for this are convincing, actually. The implications, however, are bleak. Not just a belief in "progress" or "welfare" is dispensed with this way, but, it would seem, any possibility at all of secular or urban life.

I am an idealist to whom compromise does not come easily. I am also attached enough to secular and urban life that, for one, I certainly do see the problems Lasch is getting at here, but for another, I find it not such a radical or unsettling notion that secular urbanites may just have to accept some degree of compromise re: this issue of judgment as it is manifested in whatever Welfare provisions are made; and I would think it obvious that most human groups do make some such provisions, even if these provisions are minimal, and even if they are accompanied by severe stigma attaching to failure and dependence. (Don't call it in-tolerance, I guess.)

All of which is to say that
refus[ing] to acknowledge the individual's right to relief
in the midst of force majeure is, in fact, as good an example as any of our reluctance to make demands on one another, a reluctance which Lasch elsewhere sees as very much part of the problem rather than the solution.

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