Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt Of The Elites

The title of historian and social critic Christopher Lasch’s final book, The Revolt Of The Elites, published shortly after his death in 1994, places it in conversation with an earlier work of political philosophy, José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt Of The Masses, but Lasch does not seek to dispute that book’s central claim: that the combined powers of democracy and a growing middle class were creating a “mass man” who would level all the standards of excellence upon which the very civilization that produced him was founded. Rather, Lasch believes that new developments beyond Ortega’s imagination – mass communication technologies, for example, and the increasing importance of higher education – have given an ever-smaller group of people (those dreaded “elites”) an outsized and baleful influence on society. Exasperation with “the elites” – a phrase always uttered with a sneer – was much in evidence throughout 2016, culminating in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and Lasch’s prophetic book argues that there may, in fact, be some legitimate grievances at the roots of this populist uproar.

The Revolt Of The Elites collects a series of essays organized around a general theme, that of the American elite’s abdication of their historic role as promoter of American values and their gradual turn against – and subsequent alienation from – the American heartland, where those classic values are most in evidence. This shift has been so drastic that it’s visible on a map: the college-educated elites reside primarily in cities – particularly coastal cities – and have sequestered themselves in an ever smaller number of neighborhoods. They rarely, if ever, visit “Middle America,” which they contemptuously refer to as “flyover country,” and their occupations and hobbies give them an international exposure unavailable to the average American. Unsurprisingly, then, these elites have cultivated a different set of values, more in line with their own life experiences.

The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it: a nation technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy. Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregate on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture. It is a question whether they think of themselves as Americans at all. Patriotism, certainly, does not rank very high in their hierarchy of virtues. “Multiculturalism,” on the other hand, suits them to perfection, conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic music, exotic tribal customs can be savored indiscriminately, with no questions asked and no commitments required. The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world – not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.

There is so much truth in this little paragraph I scarcely know where to begin. The new elites are extremely well-travelled, almost from birth, and therefor prize cosmopolitanism highly. They fancy that a college semester abroad in Europe, regular work trips to Asia, and a preference for exotic cuisines suffices to certify them as “citizens of the world,” and that this title unshackles them from the duties of citizenship in the country of their birth. They attended private schools and private universities, where they were initiated into a worldview flattering to their self-image: they are the enlightened few, “woke” to the evils of their self-important society, and therefore uniquely charged with righting past and present wrongs. They look upon formal religion with disdain, but they have the same holier-than-thou attitudes and intolerance of heresy that characterize the most ardent believers.

Their isolation from the common lot is so complete, Lasch argues, their disconnection from the ordinary chains of cause and effect so total, that they’ve managed to leave reality itself behind. They fancy themselves creators of a new meritocracy, built on talent and intelligence and hard work, and they use this meritocracy as a shield to excuse their own incredible affluence and influence. Look, for example, to Silicon Valley, peopled with intelligent, hard-working men and women convinced that they represent the vanguard of a new social order, built on reason and technology, and who’ve become monstrously arrogant as a result.

This arrogance should not be confused with the pride characteristic of aristocratic classes, which rests on the inheritance of an ancient lineage and on the obligation to defend its honor. Neither valor nor chivalry nor the code of courtly, romantic love, with which these values are closely associated, has any place in the world view of the best and brightest. A meritocracy has no more use for chivalry and valor than a hereditary aristocracy has for brains. Although hereditary advantages play an important part in the attainment of professional or managerial status, the new class has to maintain the fiction that its power rests on intelligence alone. Hence it has little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past. It thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts. Even the concept of a republic of letters, which might be expected to appeal to elites with such a large stake in higher education, is almost entirely absent from their frame of reference. Meritocratic elites find it difficult to imagine a community, even a community of the intellect, that reaches into both the past and the future and is constituted by an awareness of intergenerational benefit.

This is a difficult passage, and one small part of a larger argument, so I will develop his thesis a little further. Picture, in your mind, the typical Wall Street banker, Silicon Valley coder or Big Law lawyer. This person is undoubtedly intelligent, hard-working and productive, but if they’ve fallen prey to the thinking Lasch describes above, they mistakenly attribute their success only to these qualities. If they had Lasch’s concept of a community that exists in time, anchored in the past and extending into the present, they might have a keener sense of their blessings. They were very likely raised in a two-parent family, for example, one that prized education and thrift enough to send their children to expensive schools, in the hopes of securing them a better future. Is this loving, sacrificing family something we can take for granted, or is it not also the product of a larger society – one that enforces a code of conduct, places great stock in commitment and monogamy and marriage? The codes of valor, chivalry and courtly love that Lasch alludes to existed for a reason, and the beneficiaries of these values – you might think – would feel duty-bound to perpetuate them into the future. But the elites have revolted, so to speak, and forgotten the rationale behind the values they now consider antiquated. And meritocracy, Lasch argues, is not, by itself, a substitute for a value structure that would diffuse the habits and customs that lead to personal, social and economic advancement equally among the masses:

Meritocracy is a parody of democracy. It offers opportunities for advancement, in theory at least, to anyone with the talent to seize them, but “opportunities to rise,” as R.H. Tawney points out in Equality, “are no substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization,” of the “dignity and culture” that are needed by all “whether they rise or not.” Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit. It merely strengthens the likelihood that elites will exercise power irresponsibly, precisely because they recognize so few obligations to their predecessors or to the communities they profess to lead. Their lack of gratitude disqualifies meritocratic elites from the burden of leadership, and in any case, they are less interested in leadership than in escaping from the common lot – the very definition of meritocratic success.

In a meritocracy, by definition, only a few will rise to the coveted top positions. But what is to become of the remaining majority, barred from the life of easy, international affluence enjoyed by so many of today’s wealthy, across countries? If they have likewise been denied “the means of civilization” – the values that civilize, that cultivate, that helped the generations before us bear the burden of existence with an eye towards a better future – then they are doomed to suffer terribly. In the present day, the rates of obesity, divorce, out-of-wedlock births, alcoholism and drug use are astronomically higher among the so-called lower classes than among the economic elite. America’s opiate crisis sends 1,000 people a day to emergency departments. The manufacturing sector – long the economic backbone of the American heartland – has been dismantled by a combination of technological improvements and global trade, leaving a record number of working-age men out of work and out of the labour force.

Lasch explores the many ways this divide between the proletarian many and the elite few has emerged, and the consequences it has had on civic life in America, and he does so with a wide-ranging erudition clothed in an approachable, direct prose style. This is not a polemical book, but a sincere effort to understand our frightening cultural moment, and a powerful call to those of us born into power and privilege to look into a mirror before we train our critical eyes outside ourselves. The following passage was written in 1994, more than twenty years ago, but it applies today more surely than it applied then:

If terms like “populism” and “community” figure prominently in the political discourse today, it is because the ideology of the Enlightenment, having come under attack from a variety of sources, has lost much of its appeal. The claims of universal reason are universally suspect. Hopes for a system of values that would transcend the particularism of class, nationality, religion, and race no longer carry much conviction. The Enlightenment’s reason and morality are increasingly seen as a cover for power, and the prospect that the world can be governed by reason seems more remote than at any time since the eighteen century. The citizen of the world – the prototype of mankind in the future, according to the Enlightenment philosophers – is not much in evidence. We have a universal market, but it does not carry with it the civilizing effects that were so confidently expected by Hume and Voltaire. Instead of generating a new appreciation of common interests and inclinations – of the essential sameness of human beings everywhere – the global market seems to intensify the awareness of ethnic and national differences. The unification of the market goes hand in hand with the fragmentation of culture.

Who does not recognize, in the dread expressed daily in the New York Times and other liberal outlets, the fear Lasch is giving voice to? As a self-described child of the Enlightenment, I have no wish to turn my back on its values or its promise; if we are to hope for a future sodality between cultures and nations and races, it will have to rest on shared values and interests, and reason still seems to me the only tool we have to bridge the many gaps that currently separate us. But to allow hope to blind us to the divides that presently exist, to pave over the many differences between cultures in an aggressive attempt to realize an Utopian “international community,” seems to me a cynical and vain undertaking, all too often used as a “cover for power” by foolish politicians and other hopefuls, and destined to end in populist revolt. Lasch, to his eternal credit, saw these developments more than 20 yers ago; even in death, he anticipates us.