January 15, 2008

The Narcissists in their Senescence

I'm re-reading Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism just to check in on the relevance of his ancient (30 years ago) ideas about American society, and to see whether they have any continuing pertinence to America's current travails. I think they do, maybe more than ever. Lasch (a prof at Rochester University at the time he wrote the book) was clearly a polymath and Deep Thinker with a profound interest in Freudian analyses of consciousness-formation, and in particular the role of society vis-a-vis the individual personality. Fascinating stuff. In essence, Lasch described a society in which the individual members were incapable of seeing their lives as part of an historic continuum, devoting their existences not to the creation of a society where general prosperity was enhanced and posterity cared for, but rather to a Hobbesian world of merciless competition and self-aggrandizement, where the only societal "values" were the acquisition of status symbols and the creation of an "image of success." Thus, the "Narcissist" dilemma: a society in which ordinary human connections were shattered in the relentless drive to survive in a heartless world.

Sobering thoughts. I suppose my own consciousness was "formed" during the Fifties, refined during the Sixties and cemented during the Seventies. A not uncommon path for a Boomer. I never experienced that "all for one and one for all" can-do ethos of the World War II generation. Our war was a vastly unpopular exercise in futile madness that galvanized my generation only in the sense that not many of us wanted to fight in it. Along with the Civil Rights Movement (largely the result of black leadership with the assistance of ethical Jewish intellectuals and Lyndon Johnson), the anti-war movement was the main "unifying" cause of the Sixties. Had there been no draft, I'm sure the Boomer generation would have been as indifferent to the killing and dying in far-off Vietnam as America (which includes the Boomers in their narcissistic maturity) is now about Iraq and Afghanistan. No skin in the game, who cares? I've got Porsche payments to make, and what if my kid doesn't get into Hoity-Toity Country Day School?

So it's somewhat amusing to see America in its current throes of recession, unwinnable wars and general ungovernability. We have another election cycle on top of us, and most of the candidates (including, perhaps especially, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) want to be president because they want to be president. What could be more narcissistic than that? Their bromides and anodyne references to America's golden past are all nice to listen to for a few seconds, but no one is seriously proposing anything which is going to make the slightest bit of difference. As with all once-great empires sliding into decadence, the good folks of America in general do not see that the former wealth of the country was built upon its singular ability to harness a manufacturing and educational base to a world which could be exploited for cheap resources and a ready market for its exports. All of those factors have disappeared, and we're currently consuming our capital in order to maintain the (narcissistic) illusion of prosperity.

It is not that our problems could not be solved, as a matter of abstract empirical science, it's just that this society is not going to do it. To understand why, social psychology is probably the right place to start. Solutions require cooperation and a sense of common purpose, not an aggregation of 300 million special interest groups. On the other hand, Christopher Lasch wrote his book 30 years ago, and did anyone pay attention then?

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