The History of Populism, A Book Review of The True and Only Heaven by Christopher Lasch

Christopher Lasch has become one of my favorite writers and his book The True and Only Heaven Progress and Its Critics has become my favorite book I have read this year. The book can best be described as The Das Kapital of a critique of progress. Lasch does not see society progressing with the exceptions of more material wealth and technological advancements that has led to a corporate consumer economy. However, with this rise has also led to the decline of community, the family, respect, heroism, virtue, and proprietorship. Along with giving rise to mass corporate and state bureaucracy that controls more and more of people lives.

Lasch saw that the ideas of unlimited economic growth and progress go hand and hand with each other. Seeing that both believe in unlimited material wealth and technological advancements leads to the advancement of society on all levels which Lasch rejects. Lasch is by no means nostalgic for the past stating that nostalgia is an idealize version of the past and ignores the problems of the past but does agree that we have lost many valuable things from the past that are needed to keep society functioning.

Lasch believes the only way to get society back on track is through populism and a return to a producer economy were those who work and produce wealth i.e., workers, small business owners and artisans control the means of production and are viewed as the most valuable members of society. Lasch looks back to people and groups like Thomas Paine, the Peoples Party, Orestes Brownson, Jonathan Edwards, Syndicalists like Georges Sorel, Guild Socialists like G.D.H Cole, Civil Rights leader MLK and many more. Lasch saw how the populist struggles of the past were always fighting against bureaucracy, the destruction of family and community life. While Lasch praises all of them for this he’s also critical of the populist movements of the past citing while they asked the right questions but their lack of theory, and their turn to xenophobia led to their downfall. Lasch knew that the populist movements in the 21st century would be different than those of previous centuries.

Lasch also criticizes the American New Right and Neo Conservatives for having a fake form of populism. Saying that while the New Right attacks State bureaucracy for causing moral decline and proprietorship they fail to see how mass corporations and the consumer economy has played a major role in this moral decline and the downfall of proprietorship.

My biggest criticism of this book is that while Lasch understands the problems of modern society and does offer solutions, a return to a producer economy and the acceptance of limits but the way we get to those solutions are vague. While he does say populism will play a major role to getting to these solutions but what theories should populism adopt or create? How do we prevent populism from falling into the same errors of the past? The other major criticism is what form of producer economy should be strived for? We can take ideas from the older movements, but we definitely need to modernize these ideas and find away where we don’t end up with what we had before.

Other than those criticisms I really enjoyed the book. I would give it a 9 out of 10 and say its mandatory reading for those of conservative anti-capitalist ideologies. Even if you don’t agree subscribe to Lasch’s ideology or something close to it, you can still learn a lot from reading this book on what many of these populist and proto populists are about. Just note that the book is almost 600 pages long and if you’re a slow reader like me it will take you around 4 to 5 months to complete it but if you’re a fast reader it may take you less than a month. Overall, highly recommend reading.   

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