As one eases, or oozes, into middle age, one finds oneself reflecting, rather more often than formerly, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. At any rate, one inclines a more sympathetic ear to the literature of cultural complaint. Those of us currently approaching cultural curmudgeonhood are fortunate: Two splendid specimens have arrived this publishing season to confirm our suspicions, articulate our fears, fortify our dislikes and generally provide a grim good time.
Gertrude Himmelfarb is the grande dame of American neoconservatism. An eminent historian, she is also the wife of neoconservative pope Irving Kristol and the mother of high-level Republican strategist William Kristol. Having produced several distinguished books on 19th-century English intellectual history, she has in recent years devoted herself to learnedly scolding late-20th-century Americans. “On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society,” published last year, warned that we are sliding toward moral and intellectual perdition. Since Nietzsche revealed its existence a century ago, “the abyss has grown deeper and more perilous, with new and more dreadful terrors lurking at the bottom. The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of postmodernism — relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity.” Heidegger, Derrida, De Man, Rorty and their deconstructionist epigones “may ultimately subvert liberal democracy together with all the other priggish metaphysical notions about truth, morality, and reality.”
The title essay of Himmelfarb’s new volume, “The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values” (Knopf, $24), describes in sour detail what those “beasts of postmodernism” have wrought. Illegitimacy, divorce, crime, drug use, functional illiteracy, welfare dependency and other negative social indicators have all increased in the last few decades, most of them dramatically. Just as dramatically, most corresponding indicators declined from the early to the late Victorian period. The social sinew and moral tone of the Victorian era were more robust than ours, Himmelfarb claims.
The reason for this demoralization, she argues, is our “de-moralization”: the erosion of the rigorous and unquestioned code of conduct that our forebears lived by. The much derided “bourgeois virtues” — responsibility, respectability, sobriety, self-discipline, etc. — were indispensable to civic health. They still are, but our misguided present-day insistence on “value- free” administrative language and procedures, our reluctance to “impose” our morality through law and education, our overemphasis on rights and underemphasis on duties, our indifference (especially among cultural elites) to religious and other traditions, have left us without moral antibodies. The result is rampant social pathology.
All this sounds a good deal like Allan Bloom and William Bennett (though Himmelfarb is a better writer than either); and like Bloom and Bennett, it sends many liberals and leftists — the present writer included — into paroxysms of irritation. Nevertheless, she is on to something. Our social fabric is indeed fraying. Most of Himmelfarb’s book is given over not to denouncing the present age but to illustrating the practice of virtue among the Victorians. The contrast is poignant and persuasive. For all their intolerance, hypocrisy and rigidity, the Victorian middle classes were, compared with us, more earnest, conscientious, self-confident, self-sacrificing. They were better stewards of their world.
So what happened? How have we been “de-moralized”? Here is where I, at least, part company with the neoconservatives. Fundamentally, they have no other explanation for our malaise than a vast loss of moral nerve, a global change of intellectual climate. We must come to our senses, pull up our socks, have faith, and ignore those irresponsible chattering skeptics. But this is no explanation and no solution.
I don’t know of anyone who has a plausible explanation, except Christopher Lasch. Lasch, who died last year, wrote two classic jeremiads, “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations” (1978) and “The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics” (1991). His posthumous essay collection, “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy” (Norton, $22), while not a landmark work, contains plenty of vintage Lasch.
Lasch’s description of our plight resembles the neoconservatives’ in many respects, notably in his emphasis on the de cay of civic virtue. But his diagnosis goes far deeper than theirs. American democracy, he points out, flourished in the 18th- and 19th-century environment of proprietorship, small-scale production and the broad diffusion of wealth. It was these conditions that called forth the “democratic habits” of “self-reliance, responsibility, initiative”; it was they, more than any religious or moral doctrine, that produced “character” and “virtue.” And it was not primarily religious or moral skepticism but mass production and political centralization that undermined the character and made those habits superfluous.
It was, in a word, capitalism. The independent farmer, artisan or shopkeeper required one kind of character and psychology; the wage laborer another. The 19th-century Populist revolt against capitalism was far more widespread and more radical than any opposition mounted by the industrial working class, precisely because it aimed at defending a way of life and a psychic ecology rather than merely improving wages and working conditions. The Populists were defeated, and the ensuing integration of the national economy and centralization of state power are largely responsible for — to use a phrase Lasch made famous two decades ago — “the narcissistic personality of our time”: shallow, fragile, manipulative, dependent, conformist, and helpless to resist the blandishments of consumer culture.
This is Lasch’s great achievement: to have shown that the moral psychology of capitalism is profoundly different from what is claimed by its apologists (or its detractors, for that matter). Unsurprisingly, this achievement is not much appreciated by his fellow cultural complainers, most of whom are political conservatives, with no stomach for railing against godless, atheistic capitalism. Contemporary conservatives, as Russell Jacoby (author of “Dogmatic Wisdom,” last year’s foremost contribution to the literature of cultural complaint) observes, “worship the market and bemoan the [culture] it engenders.”
Lasch, it must be admitted, has no solution to the dilemma he so brilliantly elucidates. In “The Revolt of the Elites” he alludes to “the probing social commentary that took shape in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when it became evident that small property was disappearing and people began to ask themselves whether the virtues associated with proprietorship could be preserved, in some other form, under economic conditions that seemed to make proprietorship un tenable.” In “The True and Only Heaven” Lasch expounds those writings at length, but finally acknowledges that while contemporary populists “call for small-scale production and political decentralization they do not explain how these objectives can be achieved in a modern economy.”
Perhaps they can’t be achieved. In that case, it’s farewell to virtue, however eloquently anyone complains.