Culture of Narcissism
Christopher Lasch wrote his book, The Culture of Narcissism in 1979. As a cultural historian he explored the roots of pathological narcissism in 20th century America. In his view it was becoming a standard cultural trait.
Lasch detailed what he saw as the failings of late twentieth century civilization. This was primarily a failure to articulate for people a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. This was a traditional mission of culture. Now it had given way to the economy’s needs.
These needs were for people to function as producers and consumers.
Lasch saw the economy not as the victim of culture. Instead it was a creator of a deep sense of drift and detachment in society. He also made evident the connection of narcissism with an inability to deal with death.
In his view society was driven by an economic order hostile to the concept of limits and mortality.
His indictments did not extend to the whole of U.S. culture. Yet they did describe the worrying direction in which the U.S. seemed to be heading at the time. His book was widely read and endorsed, not least by the then president, Jimmy Carter.
Linking the narcissistic personality type with the “intense fear of old age and death,” Lasch felt it was no accident that the dominant events in psychoanalysis were the emergence of narcissism and the emphasis on the significance of death.
In discussing the prime strategy of corporate managers to avoid too close identification with the company and to keep all their options open, Lasch observed:
“The fear of entrapment or stagnation connects in turn with the fear of ageing and death. The mobility mania and the cult of ‘growth’ are, in part, the expression of the fear of ageing that has become so intense in society.”
“Mobility and growth assure the individual that he has not yet settled into the living death of old age.”
The result is isolation and lack of meaning in the face of death. Where people “take no interest in the future and do nothing to provide themselves with the traditional consolations of old age. The most important of which is the belief that future generations will in some sense carry on their life work.”
Lasch also emphasized the lack of connection narcissists feel with the past. This is a generational loneliness and another flaw in contemporary hedonist culture. The detachment from the past also cuts one off from the future and thus makes death terrifying.
With so few inner resources, the narcissist looks to others for their sense of self esteem. Needing admiration for beauty, charm, celebrity, or power, they find little to sustain them when youth passes them buy.
Lasch saw the mark of a narcissistic culture in the isolation and aloneness of people in total competition with everyone else. The desperateness of this isolated condition masked by the conviction that one is pursuing ‘pleasure.’
But these pleasures come at a price.
They come “in a war of all against all, in which even the most intimate encounters become a form of mutual exploitation.”
The sense of isolation that the eighteenth century philosopher Locke believed could spur entrepreneurial competition and achievement works better at enlarging GDP than in enlarging freedom for individual persons.
“Because the older generation no longer thinks of itself as living on in the next, it does not give way to the young. People cling to the illusion of youth until they can no longer maintain it.”
Lasch argued that the narcissist has just the traits that make for success in bureaucratic institutions. In these there is a premium on the manipulation of interpersonal relations and the discouragement of deep personal attachments.
The management of personal impressions comes naturally to the narcissist. He or she succeeds in political or business organizations “where performance counts for less than ‘visibility,’ ‘momentum,’ and a winning record.”
Lasch describes the key goal of the corporate manager as being, “known as a winner, and his deepest fear to be labelled a loser.”
As opposed to views that state the corporate executive’s focus on personal motivation results in visions of cooperative team work, Lasch sited textbooks for managers that found success today means “not simple getting ahead” but getting ahead of all the others.”
The new executive wants “to maintain an illusion of limitless options.”
As such, he has little capacity for “personal intimacy and social commitment.”