The Obsolescence of Left & Right
April 1989By Christopher Lasch
Christopher Lasch is Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester. This academic year he is on sabbatical as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California. His books include Haven in a Heartless World, The Culture of Narcissism, and The Minimal Self. He is the father of four children and a Contributing Editor of the NEW OXFORD REVIEW. The above article is adapted from his forthcoming book on progress and its critics, to be published by Norton next year. Copyright © 1989 Christopher Lasch.
The unexpected resurgence of the political right, not only in the United States but throughout much of the Western world, has thrown the left into confusion and called into question all its old assumptions about the future: that the course of history favored the left; that the right would never recover from the defeats it suffered during the era of liberal and social democratic ascendancy; that some form of socialism, at the very least a more vigorous form of the welfare state, would soon replace free-market capitalism. Who would have predicted 25 years ago that, as the 20th century approached its end, it would be the left that was everywhere in retreat?
But the characteristic mood of the times, a baffled sense of drift, is by no means confined to people on the left. The unanticipated success of the right has not restored moral order and collective purpose to Western nations, least of all to the U.S. The new right came to power with a mandate not just to free the market from bureaucratic interference but to halt the slide into apathy, hedonism, and moral chaos. It has not lived up to expectations. Spiritual disrepair, the perception of which furnished much of the popular animus against liberalism, is just as evident today as it was in the 1970s.
Conservative contributors to a recent symposium on the state of American conservatism report widespread discouragement with the accomplishments of the Reagan revolution, so called. Like liberals, conservatives suffer from demoralization and malaise. According to George Panichas, the crisis of modernity remains unresolved by a sham conservatism that merely sanctions the unbridled pursuit of worldly success. Clyde Wilson writes that the everyday virtues of honesty, loyalty, manners, work, and restraint are more attenuated than ever. In the early 1960s it was still possible to take for granted that the social fabric of the West was relatively intact. Under Reagan, however, it continued to unravel.
Ritual deference to traditional values cannot hide the rights commitment to progress, unlimited economic growth, and acquisitive individualism. Conservatives Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming point out that the goal of unlimited material opportunity and social improvement plays a much larger part in contemporary conservatism than a defense of tradition. Skepticism about progress, once the hallmark of conservative intellectuals, has all but disappeared. Political differences between right and left have by now been largely reduced to disagreements over policies designed to achieve comparable goals. The ideological distinctions between liberalism and conservatism have become increasingly obscure. The old categories no longer define the lines of political debate.
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