Christopher Lasch rose to prominence just as the postwar consensus was wheezing its death rattle at the close of the 1970s. Sustained prosperity had evaporated into “diminishing expectations.” Americans no longer hoped for more; they merely hoped to survive. Lasch’s diagnosis of this predicament in The Culture of Narcissism earned him a spread in Time magazine, an invitation to dine with President Jimmy Carter, and a spot on the best-seller list alongside titles such as If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, Why Am I in the Pits? He’d hit a nerve. After decades of neglect, Lasch has now returned to prominence. Even before the return of inflation this year, a succession of woes was again dimming our expectations.
What about his vision of American life in the ’70s has resonated nearly half a century later? Lasch presciently diagnosed the corrosive effects of the managerial rule that had already taken root in his time, and that so clearly defines ours. Yet in imagining alternatives and sources of resistance, he too often fell for an environmentalist sentimentality that today has emerged as one of the cornerstones of managerial misrule—a development he only half-recognized toward the end of his remarkable life and career.
Two energy crises, stagflation, Vietnam, Watergate, the fall of the house of labor, assassinations of political leaders, and the cataclysm of the 1960s weigh heavily on Lasch’s analysis. America had bestrode the globe after World War II, but by the time 1979 rolled around, Lasch wrote, “those who recently dreamed of world power now despair of governing the city of New York.” Americans seemed ill-equipped to handle the new reality—in part, he claimed, because of the dominance of the narcissistic personality.