Acrucial question for feminists is whether the gendered subjectivity of today really does follow the model of patriarchal authority elaborated in psychoanalytic theory. Juliet Mitchell has probably provided the best-known claim for the validity of psychoanalysis as the key to understanding how feminity and masculinity are acquired. In her account of ‘the making of a lady’, she argues that Freudian theory still gives the most accurate description of (not prescription for) patriarchal society, and that we ignore this analysis on pain of ignorance.footnote1 In the present article we want to explore this question from a somewhat different angle, by looking at the work of the American cultural critic Christopher Lasch who, from a position sympathetic to psychoanalysis, argues that the family form it describes has now been largely superseded in late capitalism. His work has elicited considerable feminist criticism and provides a useful perspective from which to assess the broader controversy about psychoanalytic accounts of the family and the construction of subjectivity.

In his recent ‘The Freudian Left and Cultural Revolution’,footnote2 Lasch re-states and defends against his feminist critics the theses of his two major works: Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besiegedfootnote3 and The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.footnote4 He believes that the ‘old’, ‘new’ and feminist lefts are all united in clinging to a critique of the patriarchal family. Since he believes this family form has been ‘coming apart’ for the last century or more, he not surprisingly regards the critique of it as both irrelevant and misleading. His position has provoked widespread irritation and anger among feminists in the United States, as has the sympathy with which it has been received by many (male) sections of the American left. This situation is complicated by the fact that Lasch occupies the unusual slot of being a socialist with a high media profile and book sales in the category of national best-sellers. In Britain, however, his work is less well-known, though increasingly influential in some sections of the left, and in order to engage with the political implications of his recent ‘reply’ to feminism it is necessary to retrace the main points of his earlier works.

Haven in a Heartless World tells the well-known story that begins ‘Once upon a time there was a real family . . . ’ and, describing the forces of evil that invaded this citadel, ends with a gloomy depiction of misery for all. The narrator is a Marxist: ‘The history of modern society, from one point of view, is the assertion of social control over activities once left to individuals or their families. During the first stage of the industrial revolution, capitalists took production out of the household and collectivized it, under their own supervision, in the factory. Then they proceeded to appropriate the workers’ skills and technical knowledge, by means of “scientific management”, and to bring these skills together under managerial direction. Finally they extended their control over the worker’s private life as well, as doctors, psychiatrists, teachers, child guidance experts, officers of the juvenile courts, and other specialists began to supervise child-rearing, formerly the business of the family.’footnote5

Lasch sees the family as the last stronghold of the realm of the private, invaded by public policy and the increasing manipulation of the state. Family relations, taking place in an ethos of consumerism are now indistinguishable from the social relations of the factory and market-place. Parental authority has been replaced by a definition of parenthood as merely the obligation to provide financial resources for the commodities desired by acquisitive and individualistic housewives and children. He sees advertising and consumerism as a key aspect of the ‘socialization of reproduction’: ‘Like the helping professions, it undermined puritanical morality and patriarchal authority, subtly allying itself with women against men, children against parents.’footnote6 Relations within the family now serve only self-interest and are combative and mercenary. Allied to this is a devaluation of romantic love, a distaste for passion, and the reduction of marriage to one of a series of ‘non-binding commitments.’

Lasch describes these developments in ironic, indeed bitter, terms. He regards the present family, with its Dr Spock-dependent mother, anti-disciplinarian father and children who never face the rigours of Oedipal rivalry, as both a psychic and social disaster. The family, he argues, is principally an agent for the socialization of the young—indeed none of its supposed ‘functions’ can be separated from this goal. Socialization takes place through the internalization of parental authority and values, the father providing the bedrock for the conflict that must necessarily precede the development of individual conscience, and the mother’s love offering a glimpse of values that transcend this present harshness. The family, in this process of socializing the individual into acceptance of social values, thus mediates between the individual and society, between instinct and culture. He regards ‘the irreconcilable antagonism between culture and instinct’ as the most important insight of Freudian psycho-analysis. ‘Without this insight’, he argues, ‘it becomes impossible to understand how the family mediates between the two or to understand what happens, psychologically, when the socialization of reproduction weakens or abolishes this mediation.’footnote7

What does happen, ‘psychologically’, is that the conflict played out in the paradigmatic family described by Freud is indefinitely deferred. Lasch sees the Oedipal crisis as the foundation for the development of responsible adulthood, and argues that the evasion of it made possible by the decline of parental authority leads to an infantile and narcissistic personality structure. (As we shall see later, this is predicated upon the boy’s rivalry with his father and implies that the increase of narcissism entails a general feminization of the personality.) He maintains that the processes described by Freud—socialization through rivalry and guilt—were actually losing power at the moment Freud brought them to light. They were characteristic of a bourgeois patriarchal family form already losing ground. Evasion of generational conflict, however, is not the same as resolution of it and Lasch argues that it lingers on in a more primitive form. The child whose father is absent, or refuses to exert his authority, will never overcome fantasies of punishment and fears of retribution but will simply project these onto an unspecified future. ‘Deferred retribution represents the price paid for undeferred gratification.’footnote8

This fear of deferred retribution is projected onto the social world beyond the immediate family. Today’s narcissists have an attitude of sullen resentment and resignation to an increasingly invasive set of social policies and an increasingly totalitarian state. Lasch conceives of the family as a mediator—indeed a buffer—between the individual and society; and as it is weakened, so we lose the restraint but also the idealism it engendered. We become vulnerable to new forms of domination from consumerism and the state.