When discussion turns to Christopher Lasch and his diagnosis of Western narcissism, his later work is often neglected. And this is a shame, for it is here that he offers an antidote: a physical community designed to combat the malaise of modernity.
Lasch had an affinity for the common man. He made appeals to religion and tradition for moral guidance; he saw the family as a “haven in a heartless world”; he regarded a sense of pride in one’s hometown as essential for the community functioning of Middle America; and he called for a political economy wherein people would be able to access meaningful work that called them to a higher vocation. These visions never came to fruition during his lifetime. But that hasn’t stopped others from attempting to pick up the mantle. Today, his heirs can be found across the world — in the increasing trend towards homesteading and localism.
In The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Lasch argued that American culture had become increasingly addicted to instant gratification, which placed individual desires, unmoored by virtue-based cultural norms, above the flourishing of the common good. Fundamentally, he attributed this cultural rot to the idea of progress, which, he explained in Mass Culture Reconsidered two years later, is couched in the “refusal to acknowledge limits to human powers”, and ultimately “tears people out of familiar contexts and weakens kinship ties, local and regional traditions, and attachments to the soil”.
Over the past few decades, a growing movement of individuals and communities has embraced this idea — choosing to reject the dominant culture of consumerism and “progress” in place of homesteading and localism as functioning alternatives. Most of these people, I have suggested, are driven by a larger, more amorphous sense of risk, which I attribute to the trend of societal decline.
I recently interviewed a number of small-scale home producers in and around Chicago, and most appeared to be driven by a larger, more amorphous sense of risk and societal decline. There, I was as likely to find a rural second amendment libertarian as an urban progressive socialist. In certain cases, their distrust concerned government regulations and labelling schemes; in others, there was a general sense of uncertainty around industrial food production and corporate incentives toward profit-maximisation; still others had become fed up with the entire food system after attempting to resolve persistent health issues. Despite their divergent politics and backstories, they all shared an impetus to turn to home food production to gain some sense of control and self-sufficiency.
Cultural historian Morris Berman calls this Dual Process, or the ways in which people are forced to discover alternatives in the twilight of a waning civilisation. Berman suggests that as societal functioning breaks down — as it did in Ancient Rome — people find other ways to meet their basic needs. It is in this process of meeting those needs that individuals, usually unconsciously, develop parallel institutions that could end up developing into the society that succeeds the collapsing empire.
Homesteading is, in many ways, borne out of this sense of alienation. It involves, at its most basic, taking part in the home production of goods, such as rearing livestock, hunting, fishing, beekeeping and preserving foods. This was the common mode of living for most of human civilisation until the industrial revolution, but it didn’t disappear. Interest in home production returns in waves: as victory gardens during the Second World War; as the back-to-the-land-movement of Sixties and Seventies; and now as a new self-sufficiency movement spurred in part by the pandemic and the sense of disorder that followed the decline of urban life and global supply chain shocks.
Often, the individuals I spoke to felt drained by the meaningless work of “email jobs” and an ever-increasing treadmill of consumerism. Here, they channelled Lasch’s remark in The True and Only Heaven (1991) that “capitalism itself, thanks to its growing dependence on consumerism, promotes an ethic of hedonism and health and thus undermines the ‘traditional values’ of thrift and self-denial”. Through the act of homesteading, however, these individuals have started to flex their atrophied muscles by taking responsibility for their needs. Lasch argued that a distributed universal ownership over the means of production, both through household production as well as “small producers — farmers, artisans, master craftsmen, journeymen” were essential for a functioning republic.
In general, homesteaders seek to reduce their reliance on technology and other external systems that may one day prove unreliable. As a result, many are forced into a daily confrontation with the unfiltered messiness of nature through work with their hands, unmediated by screens or advanced tools. Lasch drew on thinkers such as William Morris in The True and Only Heaven, suggesting there is a fundamental dignity of labour in creative handicrafts, and a certain “pride of workmanship formerly associated with small-scale private ownership”. Juxtaposed with the wage labour of early factory life, or even rote spreadsheet work in a modern office job, the act of production in the home can be immensely satisfying.
Homesteading is by definition driven by an interest in self-consumption, which differentiates it from a commercial small farm. However, some home-scale producers do have budding cottage food businesses selling at farmer’s markets. The Smith Homestead in Mississippi, for example, started out with a small garden over health concerns and access to healthy foods, and now has a small operation selling hand-made soaps, candles, handicrafts and fresh foods locally. It is also quite common for these households to share or barter in informal economic exchanges. In that way, it becomes both an act of self-reliance and a way to make an accessible, meaningful vocation in the crafts of small-scale production in the home.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that many homesteaders also advocate localism, whose goal is to build resilient and sustainable communities by prioritising local resources and production, and instilling a kind of civic pride of place and belonging. According to Lasch, what he calls “particularism” was an antidote to the progressive idea that we could or should love every citizen of the world in the same way we love the members of our families or communities. He pointed to people such as Willa Cather, who spoke to the particularities of place, attributing “Nebraska’s vigour and prosperity to the presence of Bohemian, Scandinavian, and German immigrants”.
Today, people engaged in homesteading seek a similar sense of belonging, something they feel has been robbed from them by the atomised society of the advanced economies they were born into. Take, for example, the recently published children’s poem “All the Ways You Can Stay“, by Wally Chamberlain, who grew up on a third-generation dairy farm in rural New England. Intended as a remedy to Dr Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”, which encourages young adults to leave their hometowns for office work in the nearest metropole, Chamberlain offers:
“The barns they all lean, and the field’s overgrown.
Paint peels quicker on a house that’s not home.
It’s hard to see, but indeed is the truth,
That places will fade without memories and youth.
Yes places need people, and this one does too,
And maybe this place, and these people, need you.
Your family, your friends, these hills, and this town,
They’d not be the same, without you around.
So leave if you must, but perhaps not today.
Stop and consider all the ways you can stay.”
What this reveals is that, despite recent pearl clutching that homesteading is adjacent to “white supremacy” or localism is “blood and soil”, many engaged in these activities care not just about prioritising individual action, but also about building communities that champion ecological sustainability and decentralised power structures, including caring about hyper-local politics and informal economies. These people often come together to share knowledge, resources and support, creating networks that prioritise resilience and self-sufficiency. Roxanne Ahern of Happy Holistic Homestead, for instance, hosts a “swap and shop” a couple of times a year with neighbours where everyone exchanges clothes and other gently used items. Again, for Lasch in The True and Only Heaven, there is a power in informal networks developed by the Common Man, which can be the foundation for the “revival of active citizenship”.
Looking towards those experimenting in homesteading and localism, we might therefore gain some insight about the modern world engaging with the not-so-distant past — a time where relying on nature to scratch out a larger force was commonplace. Those who are seeking a fundamentally more meaningful existence, through the rejection of the false promises of technological progress and the embrace of the limits of nature, are showing us the glimmers of a path towards a life that could simultaneously begin to address our spiritual and economic woes.
Lasch spent his career documenting the tragedies and loss in industrial modernity. He wrote of “the decline of craftsmanship, the fragmentation of the community, the loneliness of the modern metropolis, the subordination of spiritual life to the demands of the market” — but never lived to see a fully embodied example of people celebrating “the goodness of life in the face of its limits”. If Berman’s Dual Process theory is correct, and we are firmly in a moment of civilisational decline, we are also in a moment of great promise and opportunity. Almost 30 years after he died, Lasch’s vision could soon become a much-needed reality.