Abandoning Lasch

Abandoning Lasch

Julian Assele

Republicanism, Labor, and the Ruins of American Expansion

As a junior in college, I picked up a copy of Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites at a friend’s behest and came away transformed. Though then a self-identifying conservative, I was spell-bound by the vision of Lasch synthesizing a leftist economic critique of political economy with a conservative desire to preserve the customs and values that bind us all together. It seemed to be the perfect intellectual foundation for a conservatism better equipped to fight a global capitalism increasingly immiserating everyday people.

As the years went by, my adoration for Lasch waned—I couldn’t quite articulate why. At first I was thrilled to see my fellow conservatives rediscover Lasch. I thought the revival of his legacy would entail the rise of some kind of anti-capitalist conservatism. But something different happened. I met more and more conservatives who expressed admiration for Lasch less for his economic critiques as much as his cultural critiques of modern American society. They zeroed in on Lasch’s castigation of a global elite unanchored from national or local noblesse oblige as they flew past his overarching condemnation of Capitalism as a whole. These conservatives seemed to take Lasch’s condemnation of the vague “cosmopolitan elite” and graft it onto their broader program for a stronger, more nationalist government. The anti-capitalist Lasch seemed to transubstantiate into a pro-tariffs, anti-immigration Buchannanite. And it wasn’t as though the “anti-capitalist” conservatives were equal opportunists: after all, one rarely finds the Claremont fellows appropriating Marx’s critique. Clearly, there was something unique in Lasch’s writings that allowed conservatives to skirt around the strident economic critique I remembered reading in college.

It was only after a recent re-reading Revolt of the Elites that I was able to understand the root issue. While Christopher Lasch skillfully diagnoses the symptoms of capitalism, his framing of its history—particularly in the American context—is more romantic than it is robust. Lasch’s narrative of the withering of American Republicanism—the vision of a representative government constituted of economically independent artisans and small farmers in contrast to the multitudes of dependent wage-laborers it would eventually become—in the face of industrialization is a fatalist narrative which leaves the reader little choice but to embrace reaction. This fatalism is a product of whom Lasch chooses as the protagonists of his story. By focusing only on propertied republicanism, Lasch erases the experiences of mid-nineteenth century wage workers who adapted republican theory to an industrial world increasingly polarized by the propertied and propertyless classes. Only by learning from workers who adapted to an industrial society can we understand what to make of the global crisis we find ourselves in. By admonishing the workers for not choosing to cling to a way of life quickly going extinct, Lasch feeds a romantic nostalgia that fails to truly appreciate the struggle of low-skilled industrial workers and laborers. In sum, he develops a narrative with few helpful lessons for our present crisis.

A Republic of Gardeners and Mechanics

Lasch’s narrative of the fall of classical republicanism is best summarized in his essay Opportunity of the Promised Land. Lasch first identifies the general conception of the American dream as one synonymous with class mobility: that anyone could ascend from poverty to wealth. However, using an impressive breadth of sources ranging from mechanics’ magazines to Lincoln’s speeches, Lasch argues that the American Dream was not centered around class mobility and wealth but rather sufficiency and independence. Americans did not merely aspire to be well-compensated wage-laborers, but instead worked towards becoming self-sufficient artisans who owned their own workshop and farmers who owned and lived off the land. Independence from the will of another was the foundation of the American Dream. The working-class, or the wage-laboring class, was antithetical to this vision of republican independence. Thomas Jefferson himself wrote that the “dependence [from depending on an employer] begets subservience and venality, suffocat[ing] the germ of virtue and prepar[ing] fit tools for the designs for ambition.” The concept of a laboring class, writes Lasch, “was objectionable to Americans because it implied not only the institutionalization of wage labor but the abandonment of what many of them took to be the central promise of American life: the democratization of intelligence.”[1] Americans aspired to be self-sufficient artisans and farmers, those with enough capital to achieve independence but not so much that they do not have to labor. Citing Lincoln, Lasch claims “Wage labor in the North, insofar as it existed at all, served as a temporary condition leading to proprietorship.”[2] This American Dream of a free and independent citizenry is what undergirded classical American Republicanism.

For Lasch, the twin evils that brought an end to the Classical Republic were industrialization and the closing of the frontier. He points to early American thinkers such as Orestes Brownson, who believed that “industrialization had fostered the class divisions Americans feared” by forcing farmers off the farm and craftsmen out of the workshop. These small farmers and mechanics became proletarians, who in having to sell their labor power were forced into the factories and thus robbed of their independence. This long process of industrialization finally intersected with the Census Bureau announcing that, in 1890, the country no longer “had a frontier of settlement.” Lasch writes: “More than any other development, the closing of the frontier forced Americans to reckon with the proletarianization of labor, the growing gulf between wealth and poverty, and the tendency of each to become hereditary.”[3] The disappearance of cheap land—and with it the dream of the self-sufficient agrarian farmer—was the mortal blow that finally killed the American Dream as economic independence, and left in its place an American Dream of social mobility. Instead of men becoming citizens, men became consumers.

Requiem for the Labor Republican

Lasch is compelling. The logic of his argument is sound and the historical evidence he musters supports his thesis. It’s a strident critique of American capitalism seemingly tailor-made for those on either the Left or the Right searching for a different world than this one. It’s hard to blame anti-capitalists, especially conservative populists, for latching onto Lasch. To me, he offered a way to be anti-capitalist without capitulating to the Marxists. Lasch yearns for the values and visions crushed underneath the unstoppable march of progress. He actually seemed to resolve the contradiction at the heart of American conservatism that beguiled me for so long: honoring the traditional values of a society swinging from the gallows and yet endorsing the market economy that pulled the lever.

But as I grew older, the edges of the narrative began to fray. Contra Lasch, the closing of the frontier seemed to be a second-order effect of a first-order cause: the doctrine of private property. Private property both constituted the foundation of the yeoman Republic and was the destabilizing force that rendered the Republic unsustainable. The reason for why is simple. Because farming is so labor-intensive, families tended to have more children as helping-hands. But when it came time to pass the farm down, the farm either had to be subdivided into smaller and less productive plots so that everyone could inherit something or the first-born son inherited the family farm because the farm was too small to be divided up. Either way, the other children had to leave and seek out their own land out West, repeating the cycle again. As Jacksonian historian Charles Sellers writes, “the subsistence culture [of American settlers] could not reproduce itself over generations without a constant abundance of cheap land to provide farms for its ever more numerous offspring.”[4] And so, though Lasch emphasizes how pivotal the closing of the American Frontier was, his failure to acknowledge this structural instability beneath the farmer’s American Republic is disappointing.

But in my view, this is not Lasch’s fatal mistake. Rather, that lies in how he situates workers in the disappearance of the American Republic. The timeline for proletarianization is far more complicated than depicted. Contrary to Lasch’s “artisans into laborers” narrative, wage-laborers were already becoming the majority in Boston and Philadelphia by the opening of the nineteenth century. These unskilled laborers were crucial to the economies of the seaport cities Philadelphia and New York. As the contradictions of private property heightened, their numbers, and thus their importance, only swelled with time.

It is therefore important to understand how these workers, the destined majority of the Republic, reconciled the Jeffersonian Republican vision to the new reality of wage-labor. As early as the 1820s, labor leaders such as Thomas Skidmore were articulating a theory of Labor Republicanism where workers could reassert ownership through the establishment of jointly-owned enterprises known as cooperatives. According to historian Alex Gourevitch, these workers, derided as “Workies,” challenged the doctrine of private property at the root of the classical republican vision of agrarian farmers, believing “it was increasingly unlikely that laws [made to eliminate primogeniture and entail] alone would guarantee property distributions that secured each citizen’s independence.”[5] Instead, workers sought to reclaim Republican language in their fight to abolish domination in the workplace by bosses. The theoretical differences between classical and Labor Republicanism were subtle but distinct. While, according to classical republicanism, small producers’ independence was guaranteed prior to social relationships through their private ownership of the farm, workers’ independence, according to Labor Republicanism, was guaranteed within their social relationships through their cooperative-driven interdependence. This freedom would be founded upon the democratic decision-making of the cooperative, where workers work for themselves and each other instead of for a tyrannical boss: thus private power for the few is purified into a common good for the many.

This Labor Republicanism is a far more nimble ideology than Lasch’s classical Republicanism. It solves a key problem Lasch identifies with industrialism’s encroachment: the extinction of self-reliance and independence. Theoretically, this form of Republicanism could preserve these virtues through interdependent cooperation. But Lasch sees the battle as one being fought between small-time farmers and big-time industrialists; cooperation is seen as a defensive stance against modernity instead of as a means of contesting its meaning. Lasch uses the nineteenth-century Populists as an example of those striving to preserve the Jeffersonian vision of independent farmers. “Populists regarded self-reliance . . . as the essence of democracy, a virtue that never went out of demand. Their quarrel with large-scale production and political centralization was that they weakened the spirit of self-reliance and discouraged people from taking responsibility for their actions.”[6] Here, Lasch associates large-scale and centralized modes of production as strictly industrial and alien forces against which the small, almost backwoods small farmers stood. Cooperation is a purely defensive, reactive stance.

Lasch’s characterization of the Populists as staunch, almost reactionary opponents of industrial capitalism undersells the degree to which they relied on large-scale cooperation in their fight against the banks and railroads. While the cooperatives were in-part defensive, they were also a means of showing an alternative path for modernity: a future that looks forward, not backwards, to a republic that uses technology and incorporation to achieve prosperity and independence for all rather than for a few. In fact, the Populists were some of the staunchest supporters for democratically managed large-scale production and centralization. In 1887, Populist leader Charles W. Marcune proposed a Texas-wide Farmers’ Alliance Exchange, a “giant cooperative to oversee the marketing of the cotton crops of Alliance members and to serve as the central purchasing medium for Texas farmers.”[7] On top of this, they also moved to adopt a sub-treasury system wherein “landowning farmers in the Alliance were asked to place their entire individual holdings at the disposal of the group.”[8] Though the Populists didn’t go as far as the Socialists, who called for the complete abolition of private property, the fact that they sought to preserve republican independence through cooperation speaks to both the ingenuity and importance of workers to adapt to new material conditions. While Lasch is correct to state that the Populists championed Jeffersonian self-reliance, they did so by adapting old principles to new circumstances: they strove to achieve Jeffersonian independence through industrial interdependence, utilizing large-scale cooperation and democratic planning made possible by the railroads and new forms of communication technologies, such as the telegraph.

This Labor Republican vision theoretically solved the expansionary and exclusionary aspects of private property that formed the limits of classical republicanism. Skidmore and the Workies implicitly understood that not even expropriating land from the Native Americans could work forever; there was simply not enough land to absorb all surplus laborers. While those agrarian republicans only “identified agrarian self-sufficiency . . . with free labor in general,” the Workies aimed for a definition of free labor more inclusive to the swelling numbers of landless laborers.[9] While classical republicanism rested on insatiable expansion of land to satiate the swelling ranks of the landless, the Labor Republican vision could include not only Native Americans but also slaves and women. Thomas Skidmore “was careful to note that blacks, women, and Native Americans had suffered especially badly at the hands of the monopolizers of wealth;”[10] so, he proposed a vision of worker resistance and solidarity more adaptable to industrial capitalism while even including those laborers who were usually excluded from and dispossessed by the American Republic. While organizations such as the Knights of Labor struggled to include workers of all races, especially the Chinese, they nonetheless presented one of the most forward-thinking and innovative approaches to what seemed to be indomitable workplace domination.

Standing Athwart Labor Yelling "Stop!"

This is not to say that Lasch leaves out these characters and movements in other works. The True and Only Heaven records how 19th-century anti-capitalists such as William Cobbett, Orestes Brownson, and Langton Byllesby as well as labor movements such as the Populists and the Knights of Labor responded to the encroachment of industrial capitalism; Lasch even acknowledges the Labor Republicanism of groups like the Knights, who emphasized the “Lincoln ideal” of a republic of producers.[11] While the role of the laborer is far more active in The True and Only Heaven,he portrays Labor Republicanism as more of a failure than an achievement. Lasch correctly admonishes Marxists as well as anti-Marxist historians who were “baffled” by the Knights of Labor’s “old-fashioned” enthusiasm for cooperation and notorious “lack of enthusiasm for strikes.”[12] But he goes on to assert that the “influx of unskilled workers [into the Knights of Labor] diverted attention from the defense of craftsmanship to the seemingly more urgent need for more inclusive forms of unionization.”[13] The means of organizing workers, in other words, were supposedly given higher priority than the goal of defending their way of life.

As a consequence, unions seemingly made their peace with the factory system. Even radical labor unions such as the International Workers of the World (IWW) came to accept the premises of Taylorist scientific management—a theory that aims to break down the job of one skilled craftsman into ten jobs that any unskilled laborer could perform. Workers’ unions opted for industrial unionism and thereby retreated from the old crafts. But this conclusion by Lasch is unsound. Even when workers have a more active role in Lasch’s narrative of American Republicanism, he seems to take more time despairing over workers adapting to shifting economic realities instead of clinging to idyllic visions of Jeffersonian Republicanism. It is absurd to chide workers for choosing to fight based on their lived experiences as industrial laborers instead of as hypothetical small farmers or artisans in a pastoral America that no longer existed. Economic circumstances had changed along with material conditions and technological advances. While Lasch rightfully attacks the “condescension and contempt” with which contemporary historians look down upon the nineteenth-century Populists, he ironically deprives workers of their autonomy by painting their move toward industrial unionism as a petty distraction from the “defense of craftsmanship.” But this grudging submission to Taylorism was less a petty distraction than it was a necessary outcome of ever more workers being constituted by either low-skilled immigrants from Europe or native-born Americans who never worked as craftsmen or farmers.

Now, a Laschite may respond to this argument by saying that I am doing exactly what the historians whom Lasch rebukes in The True and Only Heaven are doing: by portraying capitalism through a Whig lens, growth is assumed to be an upward march to heaven whereby workers must adapt to or be left behind. To which I would respond: what is the alternative? Lasch is correct to point out that the division of labor upon which industrial capitalism is founded alienates workers by secluding their work to narrower and duller tasks. But such a division of labor, as with a division of anything, is a fundamentally unstable foundation for permanent things, be they a way of life or the political economy which sustains it. Rather, workers should be applauded, not admonished, for attempting to adapt the principles of independent republicanism to a society increasingly hostile to free and equal proprietorship.

Rather than looking backwards and leaving modernity to be defined by robber baron capitalists, they instead stepped up to contest its terms. It makes sense that late-nineteenth century workers would adapt to a world different from the one their parents lived in several decades prior. And, it made sense for early-nineteenth century craftsmen to resist workplace domination by simply refusing to do the work demanded of them by bosses. Only skilled artisans understood their craft and therefore had a great deal of leverage in negotiating for better wages. But late-nineteenth century unskilled factory workers were easily replaceable. They therefore adapted by taking over factories through lock-outs, sit-ins, wildcat strikes, and machine sabotage. They brought the country to a standstill through labor actions such as the Pullman Strike of 1894 and the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Some of these were hugely successful, others less so. But the individual victories and defeats are incidental to the more important point: that workers, even as unskilled factory laborers, still possessed the power to bring the country to its knees, even long after losing their positions as independent craftsmen and farmers. As Lasch chooses to despair over workers giving up agrarian producerism, he ignores their adaptability when they take up the mantle of industrial unionism against new industrial forms of capitalist domination.

When Lasch chooses to fixate on the ideal of the independent citizen-farmer, he neglects that, in the end, it’s only one set of means to a more important end: achieving freedom. While the means towards freedom as embodied in the independent artisan or self-sufficient farmer may die, this doesn’t mean freedom itself has to as well. So long as workers still yearn for freedom, new forms of achieving it will arise, and we must be open to those possibilities or else allow nostalgia to paralyze us into inaction.

Astride The Ruins

Lasch takes a despairing view of the state of the American Republic. That’s understandable. But while Lasch champions the common people’s ideals, he reproaches their methods. While he celebrates the worker defending their “crafts, families, and neighborhoods,” Lasch sees it a sign of defeat when the worker has to adapt to a workplace defined by a Taylorist division of labor antagonistic to worker control. This leaves Lasch, and by extension the reader, no choice but to dolently take up a kind of limpid reactionism. It is a position where one excludes the possibility of workers adapting to and seizing control of a workplace—only because the workplace is now organized upon alienating mechanized principles rather than the craftsman’s workshop—and instead grieves that they don’t instead go back to being Republican farmers. Because Lasch is so attached to a time long gone, any resistance by workers to new forms of immiseration in the workplace are deemed to be instant failures: their resistance is fought on ground whose conditions are surely too unfavorable for victory to last. For Lasch, the battles don’t matter if the war seems to have already been lost.

But the class war never ends. New forms of exploitation offer new avenues of resistance. Every method devised by the capitalist to oppress the worker—Taylorism, automation, or outsourcing—has within it internal contradictions against which workers will continue to adapt their resistance. The capitalists may have their Bull Runs and Chancelorsvilles, but the workers will also have their Vicksburgs and Gettysburgs.

Lasch neither stopped identifying as a socialist nor completely disavowed Marx. But by the end of his life he was a thoroughly jaded leftist. The underlying fatalism of Lasch’s later works can best be understood knowing that the author saw first-hand the kneecapping of the labor movement by the emergence of neoliberalism in the 1970s and the subsequent collapse of the American Left. Lasch himself passed away in the mid-1990s, a month after the signing of NAFTA. In the last days of his life Lasch seemed to have succumbed to a feeling Mark Fischer would articulate two decades later: capitalist realism, the feeling that capitalism’s hegemony cannot be challenged, only endured; that it is far easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Though I criticize his conclusions, I cannot help but sympathize with the position he’s coming from.

But we no longer live in that world. Lasch’s analysis made sense during a period when capitalism seemed to have finally slew history. However, History never really ends—rather, history continues. Just a decade after the great recession that crippled the world economy, a worldwide pandemic exposed the significant vulnerabilities of our global supply chains; millions protested the brutal death of George Floyd; and a new socialist politics has quickly gained ground in American politics. Ironically, the fact that conservatives are picking up and reading the anti-capitalist Lasch, a man for whom the future only portends a boot stomping on our faces forever, is a sign that other worlds are becoming possible. Workers everywhere from the sweatshops of Bangladesh to the truck drivers of Colorado are fighting the dominion of Capital. It is too early to judge if we are winning the conflict. But today is easily the most opportune time for American Labor since the 1970s.

A new program is required: a clear-eyed, material analysis of political economy. Unfortunately, Lasch fails to offer one appropriate for the urgency of the present moment, only a hollow appreciation for dead political and material forms. But as Lasch himself said, we must abandon nostalgia, for it “undermines the ability to make intelligent use of the past.”[14] The giant is not awake, but it is stirring. The old is dying. So let us help the new be born.

  1. Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, rev. ed. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996), 64. ↩︎

  2. Lasch, ibid, 67. ↩︎

  3. Lasch, ibid, 73. ↩︎

  4. Charles Sellers, quoted in …, 9. ↩︎

  5. Alex Gourevitch, From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 91. ↩︎

  6. Lasch, Revolt of the Elites, ibid, 83. Emphasis my own. ↩︎

  7. Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment (New York: OUP, Abridged edition 1978), 57. ↩︎

  8. Goodwyn, ibid, 75. ↩︎

  9. Gourevitch, ibid, 90. ↩︎

  10. Gourevitch, 95. ↩︎

  11. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991), 222. ↩︎

  12. Lasch, ibid, 209. ↩︎

  13. Lasch, ibid, 224 ↩︎

  14. Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, ibid, 82. ↩︎

Featured image: Across the Continent: "Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way", painting (1868) by Frances Flora Bond Palmer via the National Gallery of Art.

Julian Assele writes from Washington, D.C. His work can be found at Older Worlds Than These. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.