Lasch's critique of "narcissism": middlebrow pseudoscience for godless conservatives
Empirically wrong and confused about Freud.
Contemporary political punditry is totally overrun with journalists and social media personalities psychoanalyzing each other — and almost all of it is complete bullshit. That’s why I wrote Most polipsych punditry is complete bullshit a few years ago. If you’d like to see that case laid out in general, with some rigor and patience, I recommend that you click on the link above. Here, I just want to take a moment to address one of the most persistent and idiotic cases of polipsych punditry in our discourse today: right-wing folks calling people “narcissists”, ostensibly in allusion to Christopher Lasch.
A little background in case you have blessedly never run into this. A few years ago a handful of journalists and podcasters loudly discovered Lasch for the first time:
Lasch isn’t some obscure thinker — he was a bestseller, he was often discussed in mainstream media, and he was extremely influential among American conservatives — so it was surreal to see a whole orbit of people who get paid to get talk about politics all learn about him at the same time. It’s gonna be really funny when all these blue state humanities majors turned midlife crisis Republicans suddenly discover hidden gems like James Dobson and D. James Kennedy.
Anyway what matters here is that Lasch wrote a book called The Culture of Narcissism. CoN is probably best understood as an attempt to rehabilitate ordinary Protestant right ideas about the cultural consequences of godlessness for godless conservative elites. Critics who think this a simplification of Lasch have likely just simplified Protestant thought, which has a whole sophisticated theology on Luciferian pride and how the perversions of vanity and selfishness play out culturally and psychologically. Consciously or by osmosis, Lasch has plainly absorbed these ideas; his innovation is to try to rearticulate them through a quasi-Freudian, quasi-clinical lens of psychological narcissism.
This angle is perfect for political pundits who want to play amateur psychologist — a good description of the author himself, who of course has no formal training or professional background in psychology. It’s also a good fit for influencers who want to pander to the Protestant right, but who find religious claims about sin and godlessness a little too passé. It is, finally, a good fit for the extremely lazy, because in its popular form Lasch’s theory has become a hammer that turns everything into a nail: everything my haters do is narcissism, the reigning psychopathology of our age.
The basic problem here is that Lasch’s claim is just empirically incorrect. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the actual condition in question with all of its pathological psychodynamics and behavioral problems, is comically rare in the United States. Studies through 1994 repeatedly rounded its prevalence in the population to 0%; in 1995, an outlier study put it at 4.4%, and since then more rigorous studies have dropped it down to somewhere between 1% and .1%. Informal estimates usually go up to around 5%, but we are not talking about anything resembling an epidemic here, much less some kind of bizarre universal condition.
Set aside the fact that basically none of our cultural commentators have an ounce of the clinical training you’d need to make this diagnosis, and that even if they did there is simply no way they could reliably do so as they usual do: remotely, by eyeballing strangers online and running with their intuition. Set all of that aside, because what these numbers tell us is that if we actually institutionalized your average American and attempted a formal, rigorous diagnosis, the odds of finding an actual narcissist are in the low single digits.
I dwell on this point because Lasch’s entire claim to credibility here relies entirely on his supposed clinical rigor. He dismisses other writers who’ve explored similar ideas because “they use the term narcissism so loosely that it retains little of its psychological content,” they “dress up moralistic platitutes in psychiatric garb,” and in their writing, “theoretical rigor gives way”. He insists that “theoretical precision about narcissism is important” and scolds “the refusal of recent critics of narcissism to discuss the etiology of narcissism or to pay much attention to the growing body of clinical writing on the subject.” This bluster is so interminable that we shouldn’t be surprised when the Bari Weisses of the world come away thinking that they’ve just read a scientific paper.
But by his own measure, Lasch is directly contradicted by the science. In a crucial early passage, he specifically grounds his argument in a supposed “increase in the number of narcissistic patients” and “psychiatric testimony about the prevalence of narcissism.” He gives a whole series of anecdotal quotes — for example, “Burness E. Moore notes that narcissistic disorders have become more and more common” — that he presumably wouldn’t give if his argument didn’t rely on them. What are we to make of the fact that his specific, central claim about the clinical prevalence of narcissism is contradicted by every actual study on the topic?
The standard move, in my experience, has been to try to rescue Lasch’s claim by trivializing it. Instead of arguing that society is being hit with a tidal wave of NPD, you talk about narcissism as a kind of vague Freudian psychodynamic that we can’t expect science to recognize. This is directly at odds with Lasch’s specific argument, but we should also note how radically it misunderstands Freud.
Freud, like Lasch, sees narcissism everywhere. But not, he writes, as some historically recent pathology:
On the contrary it is probable that this narcissism is the universal and original state of things, from which object-love is only later developed, without the narcissism necessarily disappearing on that account…we must reckon [narcissism] as belonging to normal life, such as the psychical behavior of a person in love, during an organic illness or when asleep.
Narcissism is not in Freudian theory a sinister or pathological concept; he is careful to distinguish between what he calls “excessive narcissism” and “normal narcissism,” and readily points out benign examples of the latter. (For example, “In a sleeper the primal state of distribution of the libido is restored — total narcissism…”).
So we arrive at the hilarious triple bind that the Laschian critics of narcissism have caught themselves in. First, it is supposed to be some kind of massive world-historic epidemic that’s so powerful that it can explain not just contemporary culture writ large, but also the internal psychology of everyone in it. But then, they have to insist that this epidemic is also so subtle that it can’t be detected clinically, and can only be understood as an implication of Freudian theory. But then they have to insist that it really isn’t what we see in Freudian theory either, since Freudian narcissism can be entirely benign.
In an extraordinary aside in CoN, Lasch himself admits that he isn’t really doing Freudian theory, either:
Freud’s extrapolation of psychoanalytic principles into anthropology, history, and biography can be safely ignored by the student of society, but his clinical investigations constitute storehouse of indispensable ideas…
This is cargo cult logic! Freud indeed makes all kinds of bizarre claims about infancy, for example, but you can’t just splice them off from his theory of the Oedipus complex; they were directly related, and insofar as one was wrong the other had to be modified. Freud, contra Lasch, argues that narcissistic conflicts between the ego and superego are a defining feature of civilization in general, and not just of post-nineteenth century civilization in particular. But this isn’t just some whimsical claim that Freud tacked onto the rest of his theory: it’s a direct logical implication of it which he spells out at length in Civilization and Its Discontents. If Lasch has decided that this is a historically new phenomenon then he owes us an entirely new psychodynamic theory.
Don’t expect one from the Laschians. This talk about “narcissism” has nothing to do with narcissistic personality disorder, with Freudian / post-Freudian theory, or with our culture or with how anyone thinks about anything. Godless middlebrow conservative pundits should really just drop it and return to the old Protestant critiques of pride and vanity. Say what you will about them, but at least they make sense.
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The Libido Theory and Narcissism, Lecture XXVI, Introductory Lectures.