All labour as love is lost

Women and the Common Life

April 4, 1997

This is an engaging collection of posthumous essays that well expresses Christopher Lasch's "many years of inconclusive struggle" with the subject of the history of women. Painstakingly and touchingly introduced by his daughter, the essays are a fitting testimony to the complexity of the subject matter, and to the complexity of Lasch's idiosyncratic, sometimes exasperating perspective. His view of the centrality of the history of women to the understanding of culture carries with it a disdain for gender analysis but a belief in the equality of women, and this is what makes him interesting.

Anyone concerned with social policy will not find much pragmatism here. Though Lasch has the uncanny knack of appealing to both left and right, his prescriptions are idealistic, and while this idealism is refreshing, it does not make for political solutions. Lasch's position on the family naturally eschews all feminist interpretation. He is right, of course, to reject the crude - if not the sophisticated - and he has fun demolishing Judith Stacey's 1992 study, Brave New Families, in which she wants to convince us that working-class women are "the genuine postmodern family pioneers" in their embrace of extended family networks and the single-parent family. Far from being "a creative strategy" in the face of the collapse of the nuclear family, Lasch argues, this has nothing to do with feminist consciousness and everything to do with brute economic necessity.

For Lasch, it is not patriarchy but corporate capitalism that is the enemy. The privatisation of the family, necessary for individualism, places excessive demands on family relationships. The therapeutic apparatus of the state steps in to smooth over these tensions, so increasing its power as it benefits from the "crisis" in the family. The increasing intrusion into privacy by experts can only be put a stop to by nothing less than the complete dismantling of the structures of corporate capitalism. In their place, Lasch calls for a revival of "common life", a return to civic values that is surely utopian.

An embrace of voluntary work, an abandonment of the workplace and a return to economic dependence is hardly a realistic strategy, even if, by adopting it, the women's movement would escape Lasch's accusation of "corruption by corporate capitalism".

Enough of work; what has Lasch to say about love? That there is a 20th-century revulsion against romantic love is his conclusion. In our over-rationalised society, we dislike anything we cannot control, even if the price we pay is a drastic shrinkage of the imagination. It is hard to disagree, and this is a welcome challenge to feminist puritanism, to the stress on friendship in relationships between men and women rather than passion, yet Lasch himself would seem to underestimate the power of sex in his concept of romantic love: a highly idealised, unproblematic union of esteem and desire, which manages to evade the thorny question of the relationship between sex and power.

Lasch observes that the ritual antagonism of the sexes was a universal feature of neolithic village culture, and persists in some peasant cultures to this day. But Lasch is more interested in playfulness than conflict, and bemoans the fact that in contemporary western society, "We have all become deadly serious about love". Deadly serious, perhaps, but no closer to understanding it.

Mary Tomlinson is a fiction editor, Bloomsbury Publishing.


Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage and Feminism

Author - Christopher Lasch
Editor - Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn
ISBN - 0 393 04018 6
Publisher - Norton
Price - £15.95
Pages - 196

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