The Culture of Narcissism in an Era of Identity Politics Gone Awry

Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, took what was then a very narrowly-applied clinical term and used it to diagnose a cultural pathology he viewed rampant within American society. Taking Freud’s original definition of the term “narcissism,” Lasch’s text focusses upon the repressed rage and self-loathing which is transformed by the narcissist into grandiose notions of selfhood and self-important, to include a complete abandon of reason and connection with the material present.

Rereading Lasch’s book, I am struck by how the ethos of what he analyzes is very much with us today, and in hyper-drive as he writes presciently of our society’s obsession with fame, power, and control, all this circulating what he refers to as an “apotheosis of individualism”:

It is true that a “present-oriented hedonism,” as Riesman went on to argue, has replaced the work ethic “among the very classes which in the earlier stages of industrialization were oriented toward the future, toward distant goals and delayed gratification.” But this hedonism is a fraud: the pursuit of pleasure disguises a struggle for power. Americans have not really become more sociable and cooperative, as the theorists of other-direction ad conformity would like us to believe; they have merely become more adept at exploiting the convention of interpersonal relations for their own benefit.

Nothing speaks so clearly to this paradigm today than how woke culture has emerged among the left which results in the regular social media callouts of feminists who challenge gender ideology and the more recent media frenzy over a child, Desmond Naples, whose life has become co-opted by both transgender advocacy and Converse’s latest advertising campaign. The message is clear when it comes to marketing ideology as woke religiosity: there are no ethical limits to what humans will do to grab hold of power.

It’s also no coincidence that Lasch’s book appeared during the Carter presidency amidst extreme inflation and a recession which was accompanied by oil shortages, record-high crime rates, and crumbling infrastructure in major cities. It was amidst such crises that the culture of narcissism emerged so forcefully within American culture in light of no economic prospects for the younger generation and high rates of unemployment. Where material reality failed to provide any comfort, emotional cultural tropes emerged where an obsession with fashion and celebrity coupled with exaggerated notions of self-worth came to mark American society from the 1970s onward. All this even if his diagnosis was of a condition which he views originating in the nineteenth century as he analyzes Emma Bovary as the “prototypical consumer of mass culture, still dreams; and her dreams, shared by millions, intensify dissatisfaction with jobs and social routine.”

Where do we go when capitalism does not offer us any reprieve from the dreams left unmatched and the waning of jobs in a world where medieval feudalism is fast returning?

Last month I spoke with Shaz Memon, Founder of Digimax and a dental marketing specialist, who tells me how many millennials today are turning to connect to themselves rather than a community in this era of being overworked and often underpaid. Memon postulated, “I think in this current economic climate where the under-thirty crowd is more highly educated than ever while paradoxically these same individuals face diminishing job opportunities, the result is a generation which is struggling to stay afloat while facing steeper odds for any sort of economic advancement and social importance. Where do you go for reassurance or a feel-good moment? Many are turning to treatments which improve how they look, and how you look directly reflects upon how you feel.”

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