Christopher Lasch was one of those rare figures in American public life who was respected by people on both the left and the right, among scholars as well as ordinary folks, in intellectual circles as well as among those who have no patience for abstract ideas. As a historican and cultural critic, he was perhaps best known for The Culture of Narcissism, which became a bestseller in the late 1970s. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, a collection of essays published after his death in 1994, represents Lasch at his best — timely, perceptive, and intellectually uncompromising.
The book brings together thirteen essays (ten of which have been adapted from previously published articles) on what Lasch describes as America's "democratic malaise." The book is divided into three parts: the first looks at the "intensification of social divisions" in the nation; the second surveys the degradation of contemporary public discourse; and the third offers Lasch's reflections on the spiritual predicament at the heart of America's social and political crisis.
The book's title is a take-off on Jose Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, a reactionary work published in 1930 that ascribed the crisis of Western culture to the "political domination of the masses." Ortega believed that the rise of the masses threatened democracy by undermining the ideals of civic virtue that characterized the old ruling elites. But in late twentieth-century America it is not the masses so much as an emerging elite of professional and managerial types who constitute the greatest threat to democracy, according to Lasch. The new cognitive elite is made up of what Robert Reich called "symbolic analysts" — lawyers, academics, journalists, systems analysts, brokers, bankers, etc. These professionals traffic in information and manipulate words and numbers for a living. They live in an abstract world in which information and expertise are the most valuable commodities. Since the market for these assets is international, the privileged class is more concerned with the global system than with regional, national, or local communities. In fact, members of the new elite tend to be estranged from their communities and their fellow citizens. "They send their children to private schools, insure themselves against medical emergencies ... and hire private security guards to protect themselves against the mounting violence against them," Lasch writes. "In effect, they have removed themselves from the common life."
The privileged classes, which, according to Lasch's "expansive" definition, now make up roughly a fifth of the population, are heavily invested in the notion of social mobility. The new meritocracy has made professional advancement and the freedom to make money "the overriding goal of social policy." Lasch charges that the fixation on opportunity and the "democratization of competence" betrays rather than exemplifies the American dream. "The reign of specialized expertise," he writes, "is the antithesis of democracy as it was understood by those who saw this country as the 'last, best hope of earth'". Citizenship is grounded not in equal access to economic competition but in shared participation in a common life and a common political dialogue. The aim is not to hold out the promise of escape from the "laboring classes," Lasch contends, but to ground the values and institutions of democracy in the inventiveness, industry, self-reliance, and self-respect of working people.
The decline of democratic discourse has come about largely at the hands of the elites, or "talking classes," as Lasch refers to them. Intelligent debate about common concerns has been almost entirely supplanted by ideological quarrels, sour dogma, and name-calling. The growing insularity of what passes for public discourse today has been exacerbated, he says, by the loss of "third places" — beyond the home and workplace — which foster the sort of free-wheeling and spontaneous conversation among citizens on which democracy thrives. Without the civic institutions — ranging from political parties to public parks and informal meeting places — that "promote general conversation across class lines," social classes increasingly "speak to themselves in a dialect of their own, inaccessible to outsiders." In "The Lost Art of Argument," Lasch laments the degradation of public discourse at the hands of a media establishment more committed to a "misguided ideal of objectivity" than to providing context and continuity — the foundation for a meaningful public debate.
In a final section titled "The Dark Night of the Soul," Lasch examines what he considers a spiritual crisis at the heart of Western culture. This crisis is the product of an over-attachment to the secular worldview, he maintains, which has left the knowledge elite with little room for doubt and insecurity. Traditionally, institutional religion provided a home for spiritual uncertainties as well as a source of higher meaning and a repository of practical moral wisdom. The new elites, however, in their embrace of science and secularism, look upon religion with a disdain bordering on hostility. "The culture of criticism is understood to rule out religious commitments," Lasch observes. Today, religion is "something useful for weddings and funerals but otherwise dispensable." Bereft of a higher ethic, the knowledge classes have taken refuge in a culture of cynicism, inoculating themselves with irreverence. "The collapse of religion," he writes, "its replacement by the remorselessly critical sensibility exemplified by psychoanalysis, and the degeneration of the 'analytic attitude' into an all-out assault on ideals of every kind have left our culture in a sorry state."
Copyright 1996 by Scott London. All rights reserved.