American conservatism, for Lasch, took the assumptions of economic liberalism for granted. In a late essay published in the journal First Things, he remarks that “if conservatism is understood to imply a respect for limits, it is clearly incompatible with modern capitalism or with the liberal ideology of unlimited economic growth.” The acquisitive individualism that is inseparable from this ideology instills a set of attitudes and expectations that undermine not only traditions and communities, but the institutions that the right historically revered as moderating influences against greed and excess: the family and small-scale property ownership. Lasch observes that “twentieth-century capitalism… has replaced private property with a corporate form of property that confers none of these moral and cultural advantages. The transformation of artisans, farmers, and other small proprietors into wage-earners undermines the ‘traditional values’ conservatives seek to preserve.” He concludes: “capitalism’s relentless erosion of proprietary institutions furnishes the clearest evidence of its incompatibility with anything that deserves the name of cultural conservatism.”
Taken as a whole, Lasch’s body of writing offers an account of the limitations of the American political panorama of his era. Conservatism, he suggests, tends to provide de facto ideological cover for the economic developments that have eroded the social values it claims to promote. Liberalism, for its part, has overseen the rise of a state bureaucratic apparatus that promises to compensate for the effects of this erosion. However, in the process, it further weakens the autonomy of individuals, families, and communities, and enables the substitution of democracy with technocratic elite rule. While the New Left of the 1960s rebelled against the expansion of corporate and bureaucratic power, the end result of its revolt was not a reassertion of the local and the communal, but the infusion of those structures with a new therapeutic sensibility.
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