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Review: The Revolt of the Elites – by Christopher Lasch

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Chrisopher Lasch said, in the acknowedgements in his book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995, ISBN 0-393-03699-5) that it was written under trying circumstances. He had cancer and died before it was published. It was based on essays published in several intellectual magazines and journals. In The Gift of Christopher Lasch, James Seaton, writing in First Things, a conservative, religious, intellectual magazine, saw his work turning from fashionable radicalism to “the moral and spiritual depth that becomes possible when an intellectual disdains the consolations offered by the intellectuals’ view of themselves as morally and mentally superior to the rest of humanity.” The conservative critic Roger Kimball was less gracious, even condescending in “Christopher Lasch vs. the elites”, (1995, Vol. 13, New Criterion, p. 9). (Lasch praised Kimball’s book Tenured Radicals in one of his essays, and said little that Kimball would disagree with, except on capitalism and high culture).

Lasch favoured pragmatism in philosophy and populism in politics, and he was skeptical of high culture conservatism. The lead essay is a refutation of Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, a favoured text among cultural conservatives. Ortega argued that modern politics were dominated and degraded by mass culture and that mass tastes were responsible for increasing ugliness in art and banality in public life. Lasch argues that the masses are primarily workers and consumers, with little choice in how to fill their needs and satisfy their tastes. They consume the tangible and artistic products that are available. His view is that society is dominated by elites. He argues that technocrats in business and government exercise wide powers of economic and social control, perpetuating their own power and influence as a new aristocracy of talent. He argues that there are enduring class divisions in American society, in spite of cultural pretenses to the contrary, and that technocrats are part of the ruling class.

“Opportunity in the Promised Land” traces the history of the term social mobility, a term that was popularized in the media after 1945 as kind of modern myth that tempers the reality of limited opportunities for the majority of modern Americans. “Does Democracy Deserve to Survive” addresses the way that American culture seems to have given up on the capabilities of the ordinary citizen, increasingly treating citizens as unintelligent and lazy consumers.

There is an essay on communitarianism and populism – he favours populism. There is an essay on isolation – we meet each other at work, or in specialized contexts. The social institutions of the neighbourhood have withered. We end up relying on our own families for our entire social life, unless we are fortunate or wise enough to connect with friends and fellow human beings in other ways. There is an essay on the racial politics of New York, the politics of identity and outrage of Al Sharpton, as opposed to Jim Sleeper’s vision of a city of proletarian strength, professional excellence and high cultural achievement.

“The Common Schools” looks back at the principles of moral fervour and democratic idealism of Horace Mann, one of the founders of the modern public school system and finds the source of some of the persistent problems of the educational system in the loss of Mann’s moral fervour combined with the fulfilment of some of his methods – a professional class of teachers working in a specialized institutional system, taking charge of children and promising, unrealistically to turn them into responsible moral citizens.

“The Lost Art of Argument” sheds light on the issues of superficiality and bias in the media. In the decades before and after the Civil War, newspapers were frankly partisan, but they engaged their readers in serious disputes about public affairs. The ideal or the pretence that a newspaper is a vehicle for the delivery of neutral information can be traced to the commercial alliance between the media and the advertising industry. Advertisers wanted to be able to publish commercial information in a respectable medium, and the newspapers wanted to respond to the tastes of consumers as interpreted by advertisers by being more dignified and useful. The identification of news became the function of a professional elite of journalists and editors. The delivery of the news became a specialized art, serving a business. He notes that Walter Lippman, a liberal propagandist of note, developed the idea of professional journalism as technocratic institution mediating the flow of information between citizens and the techocrats who administered business and government. Lasch argues this has the effect of putting distance between citizens and events, eliminating the engagement of argument. In argument, there is the chance of persuading an opponent and the risk of being persuaded. (I watched Good Night, and Good Luck as I was reading this essay, and it put the conflict between Murrow and Paley in a fuller perspective). Being immersed in a stream of information and progapanda is not the same. We are consumers, with no influence, no ability to speak back, no way to stop the noise, except tuning out. Some news engages the sentiments, but nothing seems to have an real connection to our lives.

This essay is useful in understanding why the media is not necessarily a trustworthy source of information to make decisions. The news is a cultural product, and the media expresses the dominant cultural values of materialism and consumption. It maintains a stance of fashionable criticism of established authority, and is infatuated with novelty and celebrity. It is “conservative” on economic and political stories and crime but generally “liberal” on cultural issues (favouring tolerance, diversity, choice, liberation, personal growth and the pleasures of consumption over self-restraint). It doesn’t as much reflect as create the tastes of mass culture. The stance of objectivity, combined with sheer laziness and stupidity, means that political stories are reported literally, superficially and uncritically. The media is full of badly written political propaganda, celebrity news, sports and entertainment and lifestyle information. We are losing contact with the debate over vital issues and becoming disengaged from the democratic life of our cities and nations.

As well, people tend to learn how to present themselves and even how to write and speak by watching and imitating the styles of celebrities and the media, hence:

When words are used merely as instruments of publicity or propaganda, they lose their power to persuade. Soon they cease to mean anything at all. People lose the capacity to use language precisely and expressively or even to distinguish one word from another. … ordinary speech begins to sound like the clotted jargon we see in print. Ordinary speech begins to sound like “information” – a disaster from which the English language may never recover.

“Academic Pseudo-Radicalism” begins with a comment about stratification and specialization in higher education. One of historical goals of higher education was the democratization of liberal culture. Due to the rising cost of universities, a liberal education is increasingly unavailable to most students. The students who get one are increasingly homogeneous in affluence. They are taught by a self-obsessed academic elite, occupied with postmodernity and identity politics. They specialize in the rhetoric of revolution and transgression, the language of creating one’s one values – but it is just posturing by comfortable members of a comfortable elite. Meanwhile, as for an education in the history and values foundational to our culture …

In “The Abolition of Shame”, he reflects on the disappearance of a moral vocabulary from American culture, the disappearance of the idea of personal responsibility and the preoccupation with self-esteem. He discusses several current psychological studies of shame, judging them to be increasingly misguided as they move away from or ignore the idea of responsibility and treat shame as an enemy of self-esteem. He carries this discussion into the ideology of education and the ideology of parenting as taught by psychology. When psychology teaches that people have a right to approval – whether or not their actions merit attention or approval – it becomes propaganda for a morality of selfishness.

In “Philip Rieff and the Religion of Culture” he asks the question “whether a democratic culture can flourish, or even survive, in the absence of the internal constraints that formerly supported the work ethic and discouraged self-indulgence”. Religion has declined among the educated technocratic elites, as a persuasive and coherent source of values, and as a general sensibility. People understand their own actions, and the actions of others in therapeutic, rather than religious and ethical terms, a situation discussed in the writing of Philip Rieff. Rieff had not published a book since 1973 (a situation that has just changed, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education), and Lasch spends several pages capturing his thought.

According to Rieff, culture is a way of life backed up by the will to condemn and punish those who defy its commandments. A “way of life” is not enough. A people’s way of life has to be embedded in a “sacred order” – that is a conception of the universe, ultimately a religious conception, that tells us “what is not to be done”.

Those who regard tolerance as the supreme virtue and confuse love with permissiveness will find these propositions forbidding …

This kind of thinking seems to bring Lasch into line with Roger Kimball and other cultural conservatives, but he rejects the high culture project. He says “the worst way to defend culture is by deifying it …. modern intellectuals should not aspire to be the successors of the clergy …. it tends to make a religion out of culture.” He goes on to argue:

Culture way well depend on religion but religion has no meaning if it seen merely as prop of culture. Unless it rests on a disinterested love of being in general, religious faith serves only to clothe human purposes with a spurious air of sanctity. That is why an honest atheist is always to be preferred to a culture Christian.

His closing chapter, “The Soul of Man under Secularism” begins with an attack on the “religion of art” as expressed by Oscar Wilde as offering the “seductive vision of selfhood unconstrained by civic, familial or religious obligations.” This leads into an unfavourable evaluation of Jung’s spiritualized, aestheticized, romanticized version of psychology that has been so influential in modern thinking. This leads into a discussion of the false idea of social progress, taught by Jung and others, that the history of society can be compared to the growth of a child. In this view, religion is viewed as a childlike system of ideas that comforted our immature ancestors, which in modern times “is treated as a source of intellectual and emotional security, rather than a challenge to complacency and pride”.

He doesn’t comment on the evangelism and fundamentalism that have become the religion of mass culture in modern America, except to defend it in populist and social terms. His defence of religion conveys a withering criticism of the modern idea of personal spirituality and all the pseudo-religions devoted to self-fulfillment and self-esteem. It would have been interesting to get his take on how the culture of narcissism has started to influence religious practice in American churches that consider themselves conservative – their grandeur, their use of modern technology, their familiarity with the psychology of personal fulfillment, their relationship with corporate values, their acceptance of consumerism, their self-righteous focus on criticizing the sins of others.

Lasch has been described as a difficult writer. His prose is good, but he tends to write in aphorisms and to argue elliptically. His philosophy is unsystematic, running from foundationalism to Jamesian pragmatism. But, he was a rigorous thinker, a gifted writer, and he had an honest belief in democratic values. His arguments fall outside the conventional ideological boxes, joining conservative social ideas with a radical critique of capitalist economics and social institutions. His ideas are worth thinking about.

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About Brave Kelso

  • http://pogblog.blogharbor.com pogblog

    Reverently guzzled air.

    A thought-stirring review, Tony. For my part, I applaud the anti-institutional forays into an idiosyncratic awe roughly discovered on the ground, allowing some faint hope of genuine on-going encounter with the Raw Fabulous.

    Guruism (including priests, ministers, imams, rabbis, Dick Cheney, & etc.) is a pestilence. I would rather have the sputtering, sporadic erring of ‘self-esteem’ than the guaranteed sheepism of any worship not guided by grass blades, dirt, and reverently guzzled air.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    I’d like to say this was a thought provoking review – but I’ll have to read this article a few times over before I can say I’ve fully digested it. You’ve provoked too much thought for a flip judgment.

    Tony, anyone who makes me stop and read his work a few times, gets my respect. Thank you.

  • ACamus in Seattle

    The construction of your review is deceptive. This is quite common among authoritarian collectivist points of view, taking possession of Lasch as an argument against “Conservatism.”

    The reality is that he equally deconstructed both.

    You began the review by attempting to form the debate by demonstrating that a Conservative did not like his presentation. In my mind that was highly manipulative, Lasch is highly capable of defining himself without someone recontextualizing his work.

    With that said, I think this review attempts to direct his work for those who take summary as thesis.

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