The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy

Christopher Lasch
New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995
276 pp., $22.00

Linda Frey
University of Montana-Missoula

Christopher Lasch brings to this posthumous selection of his essays the skills of a historian, the sensibility of a moralist, the conscience of the social critic, and the commitment of a citizen. These essays are to be treasured as the last words of "a man of grace who found much of late modernity graceless.... [A] man of purpose who lamented our culture's frenetic purposelessness" (Jean Bethke Elshtain, New Oxford Review [May 1994]: 25). In his death as in his life, Christopher Lasch was a man of courage, who was banished from the New York Review of Books for his failure to echo the "correct" line on abortion. This pro-family populist and former Marxist became a sharp critic of capitalism, of the idiocies of the Left, of self-indulgent individualism, and of mass consumerism. This collection of thought-provoking essays continues the themes laid down in many of his other works, notably The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The True and Only Heaven (1991). As in those works he grapples with contemporary political and cultural controversies, tries to "hold up a mirror to society...takes sides, passes judgment" (Casey Blake and Christopher Phelps, "History as Social Criticism: Conversations with Christopher Lasch," Journal of American History 80 [March 1994]: 1313).

The question of "whether democracy has a future" dominates all his writings (3). In this work, he contends that the elites have become dangerously isolated from the rest of the country. Lasch evokes by contrast the populist tradition of democracy against which the loss of democratic habits, self-reliance, responsibility, initiative, and the decline of self-governing communities make the future of democracy problematic. He has little sympathy with current buzzwords such as diversity, compassion, empowerment, entitlement. Such catchwords "express the wistful hope that deep divisions in American society can be bridged by goodwill and sanitized speech" and ignore the "tough realities" (7). The deterioration of public debate darkens the picture even more. "Once knowledge is equated with ideology, it is no longer necessary to argue with opponents on intellectual grounds or to enter their point of view. It is enough to dismiss them as Eurocentric, racist, sexist, homophobic--in other words as politically suspect" (13). He sees the decline of democratic debate mirrored in the slogan "diversity." "In practice, diversity turns out to legitimize a new dogmatism, in which rival minorities take shelter behind a set of beliefs impervious to discussion" (17). In a nation of minorities "the insidious assumption that all members of a group can be expected to think alike" coupled with a balkanization of opinion undermines the possibility of a democratic society (17). His respect for the spiritual discipline of religion which challenges "complacency and pride" (242) undergirds these essays as does his belief that unlimited accumulation of wealth inevitably undermines the quest for social and civic equality.

Part I: "The Intensification of Social Divisions" includes one of the most compelling chapters in the book. For him it is not, as Ortega y Gasset had it, the revolt of the masses which threatens social order but the revolt of the elites who have lost faith in the values of the West and who have come to scorn Middle America. These favored few increasingly monopolize money, education, and power. The growing chasm in the United States he sees reflected in the changing class structure, in the decline of the middle class, and in the growth of the so-called "contingent labor force." These new elites are defined not by ownership of property but by professional expertise. Their loyalties are international, not national or local. Increasingly divorced from a sense of place and from standards once passed from generation to generation, obsessed with "self-esteem," the elites are increasingly isolated from the larger society. The results are sobering: "segregation of social classes; contempt for manual labor; collapse of the common schools; loss of a common culture." The new elites barricade themselves in suburbs, send their children to private schools, enroll in private medical insurance plans; "they have removed themselves from the common life...[and] have ceased to think of themselves as Americans in any important sense, implicated in America's destiny for better or worse" (45). He evokes the virtues of a sense of place and a respect for historical continuity for without "a common ground, common standards, a common frame of reference...society dissolves into nothing more than contending factions, as the Founding Fathers of America understood so well--a war of all against all" (49).

The new elites have placed their faith in the concept of social mobility, " a fairly recent and sadly impoverished understanding of the American Dream" (50). Just as the elites have isolated themselves from the society at large so too political ideologies have lost "touch with the concerns of ordinary citizens" (80). The argument that "a respect for cultural diversity forbids us to impose the standards of privileged groups on the victims of oppression" serves as "a recipe for universal incompetence" (85). A democratic society must rest on common standards and "a more invigorating ethic than tolerance" (89). He decries the current emphasis on rights instead of responsibilities, on compassion, "the human face of contempt," rather than respect. The words of Walt Whitman in 1870 serve this contemporary Jeremiah well: "Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us" (91). The encroachment of the market has undermined the family, the neighborhood, the school, and the church.

In Part II: "Democratic Discourse in Decline," Lasch underlines that we have abandoned the "historic mission of American education, the democratization of liberal culture" (177). Left-wing academics have abandoned the idea of communicating with a larger audience and failed to address the crisis of the educational system. Incomprehensible jargon, overspecialization, and insidious double standards "masking as tolerance" (185) have further undermined that system. In Part III: "The Dark Night of the Soul" he underscores the appalling consequences of the expansion of "therapeutic" authority over the family, the school, and public policy.

In all of these essays, many of which have been previously published, Lasch questions the shibboleths of our day and underlines the consequences of the "therapeutic" model of the state. These essays, beautifully written and compellingly argued, are mercifully free of the jargon and obfuscation which bedevils so much academic writing. Still the definitions of "elite" and of "democracy" so crucial for the argument are maddeningly elusive. Nor does he differentiate among the elites. The business elite who operate in an international market are not the same as the academic "elite" who foster the cult of self-esteem. The problem is also partly methodological. Like his other works, this book is based on a series of brilliant, occasionally idiosyncratic essays. Unlike his other books, many of the essays do not advance the argument and stand better alone. The book would have been stronger had some been omitted. Not everyone will agree with his analysis, but few will come away from this book without a respect for his moral vision and for a man who was seriously engaged in the debates of his time. His answers to the contemporary crisis, to the emotional and spiritual impoverishment of the modern world, lie embedded in the critique. For this is a call for a democratic system founded on a sense of civil obligation, on internal constraints, on standards of personal conduct, and on individual responsibility. Christopher Lasch believed, in the words of Jean Bethke Elshtain, "in the responsibility of the intellectual to and for his or her particular time and place" (New Oxford Review [May 1994]: 27). These essays stand as proof of that commitment and a call for others to share it. He saw that the diminishing hold of traditional norms and ideals had serious ramifications on the life of the family and on that of nation. He did more than bemoan the loss of a common culture; he called us to submit our preferences to the test of debate. A critic, he once said, must "hold a society up to its own highest standards, appeal to its own traditions in order to show how far its practice falls short of its principles" (Blake and Phelps, 1329). These essays underline the tragedy that this compelling voice is now silenced.

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