Populism from an Elite Man

Lasch, Christopher.  The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.


Just reflecting on the state of things today; took a recommendation from Ross Douthat (see here).  Yes, Lasch’s text has its limitations (partly from its format, which is a bit of a per accidens stitching-together of articles at some points, especially as you work through the text).  However, I like his vinegar on the whole.  He is an interesting case—coming from rather good stock (a Rhodes Scholar father and a philosopher mother), he breathes a particular kind of populism.  Certainly not the same populism as that which has swept over our nation today.  Nonetheless, a populism that makes some salient points.  I find his narrative more amenable than Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which I have glanced at as my wife has been reading it of late.  Perhaps it hits too close to home; I need to read it when she is done… It feels a bit patronizing though.

Lasch, in contrast, is just vituperative—and I think that certain parties need some vituperative reminders that the world of contemporary culture (and contemporary standards of “excellence”) are actually worthless—worthless.  But, then again, my dear Jacques Maritain wrote Antimoderne.  An unfortunate title; but still a worthwhile enterprise in many ways.  We have our own tribalisms today… Lasch lashes out at some of them—though he and I don’t agree on all points.  Still, a worthy read on the whole; prophetic if you remember that it’s 20 years old.  (Then again, that is not long ago—despite what certain superficial journal-peddling academic sophists may tell you.)

Some fun excerpts; my comments are in brackets; bold emphasis added:

“Thanks to the decline of old money and the old-money ethic of civic responsibility [he is not wholly rosy in an early passage, though], local and regional loyalties are sadly attenuated today.  The mobility of capital and the emergence of a global market contribute to the same effect.  The new elites, which include not only corporate managers but all those professions that produce and manipulate information—the lifeblood of the global market—are far more cosmopolitan, or at least more restless and migratory, than their predecessors.  Advancement in business and the professions, these days, requires a willingness to follow the siren call of opportunity wherever it leads.  Those who stay at home forfeit the chance of upward mobility [but not the chance to be wise in stability, an old monastic virtue].  Success has never been so closely associated with mobility, a concept that figured only marginally in the nineteenth century definition of opportunity (cf. ch. 3, ‘Opportunity in the Promised Land’).  Its ascendancy in the twentieth century is itself an important indication of the erosion of the democratic ideal, which no longer envisions a rough equality of condition but merely the selective promotion of non-elites into the professional-managerial class.

Ambitious people understand, then, that a migratory way of life is the price of getting ahead.  It is a price they gladly pay, since they associate the idea of home with intrusive relatives and neighbors, small-minded gossip, and hidebound conventions.  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 highly on 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” (5-6).


“The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life—hence their feeble attempt to compensate by embracing a strenuous regimen of gratuitous exercise.  Their only relation to productive labor is that of consumers.  They have no experience of making anything substantial and enduring.  [Meditate on this last sentence.  It is a bit over-the-top; but there is a truth to it.]” (20)  Continue on for some other good things on this page if you desire.


“To refer everything to a ‘plurality of ethical commitments’ means that we make no demands on anyone and acknowledge no one’s right to make any demands on ourselves.  The suspension of judgment logically condemns us to solitude.  Unless we are prepared to make demands on one another, we can enjoy only the most rudimentary kind of common life” (88).  This is repeated, in a way, on page 107.


“Respect is not another word for tolerance or the appreciation of ‘alternative lifestyles and communities.’  This is a tourist’s approach to morality.  Respect is what we experience in the presence of admirable achievements, admirably formed characters, natural gifts put to good use.  It entails the exercise of discriminating judgment, not indiscriminate acceptance” (89).

[This is well compared to Sandel’s remarks of late:]

“But individuals cannot learn to speak for themselves at all, much less come to an intelligent understanding of their happiness and well-being in a world in which there are no values except those of the market.  Even liberal individuals require the character forming discipline of the family, the neighborhood, the school, and the church, all of which (not just the family) have been weakened by the encroachments of the market.  The market notoriously tends to universalize itself.  It does not easily coexist with institutions that operate according to principles antithetical to itself: schools and universities, newspapers and magazines, charities, families.  Sooner or later, the market tends to absorb them all.  It puts an almost irresistible pressure on every activity to justify itself in the only terms it recognizes: to become a business proposition, to pay its own way, to show black ink on the bottom line.  It turns news into entertainment, scholarship into professional careerism, social work into the scientific management of poverty.  Inexorably it remodels every institution in its own image” (98).


"Market mechanisms will not repair the fabric of public trust. On the contrary, the market's effect on the cultural infrastructure is just as corrosive as that of the state” (101)


117-128: Conversation and the civic arts; this is a really good section on the whole.  It gives one a sense of how learning to converse is an art absolutely necessary for being a citizen; and how we have lost this in some important ways.  I’m sure that there are some very interesting thoughts others have had on cognate issues of late, given the pressures of the internet in the 20 years since Lasch wrote.


“History has given way to an infantilized version of sociology, in obedience to the misconceived principle that the quickest way to engage children’s attention is to dwell on what is closest to home: their families; their neighborhoods; the local industries; the technologies on which they depend.  A more sensible assumption would be that children need to learn about faraway places and olden times before they can make sense of their immediate surroundings.  Since most children have no opportunity for extended travel, and since travel in our world is not very broadening anyway, the school can provide a substitute—but not if it clings to the notion that the only way to ‘motivate’ them is to expose them to nothing not already familiar, nothing not immediately applicable to themselves” (159).


“Until we have to defend our opinions in public, they remain opinions in Lippmann’s pejorative sense—half-formed convictions based on random impressions and unexamined assumptions.  It is the act of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of “opinions,” gives them shape and definition, and makes it possible for others to recognize them as a description of their own experience as well.  In short, we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others” (170).


“The press extends the scope of debate by supplementing the spoken word with the written word.  If the press needs to apologize for anything, it is not that the written word is a poor substitute for the pure language of mathematics.  What matters, in this connection, is that the written word is a poor substitute for the spoken word.  It is an acceptable substitute, however, as long as written speech takes spoken speech and not mathematics as its model.  According to Lippmann, the press was unreliable because it could never give us accurate representations of reality, only ‘symbolic pictures’ and stereotypes.  Dewey’s analysis implied a more penetrating line of criticism.  As Carey put it, ‘The press, by seeing its role as that of informing the public, abandons its role as an agency for carrying on the conversation of our culture.’  Having embraced Lippmann’s ideal of objectivity, the press no longer serves to cultivate ‘certain vital habits’ in the community: ‘the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternative purposes that might be pursued’” (172-3).


“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.  The spoken word models itself on the written word instead of the other way around, and ordinary speech begins to sound like the clotted jargon we see in printOrdinary speech begins to sound like ‘information’—a disaster from which the English language may never recover” (175).


There are some interesting remarks here about Freud as a moralist of sorts.  It confirms in a vague way things I often think about clinicians in psychology—that theirs truly is a practical knowledge; this is something not reflected on enough, even though it seems obvious enough.  My wife remarks that there can be an aping at scientific objectivity that is not isomorphic to the experience of a clinician.  However, I will leave that unsaid on the whole for fear of misquoting her!  As regards Lasch’s remarks, see 216ff.


“What makes the modern temper modern, then, is not that we have lost our childish sense of dependence but that the normal rebellion against dependence is more pervasive than it used to be.  The rebellion is not new, as Flannery O’Conner reminds us when she observes that ‘there are long periods in the lives of all of us… when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.  Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints.’  If the whole world now seems to be going through a dark night of the soul, it is because the normal rebellion against dependence appears to be sanctioned by our scientific control over nature, the same progress of science that allegedly destroyed religious superstition.

Those wonderful machines that science has enabled us to construct have not eliminated drudgery, as Oscar Wilde and other false prophets so confidently predicted, but they have made it possible to imagine ourselves as masters of our fate.  In an age that fancies itself as disillusioned, this is the one illusion—the illusion of mastery—that remains as tenacious as ever.  But now that we are beginning to grasp the limits of our control over the natural world, it is an illusion—to invoke Freud once again—the future of which is very much in doubt, an illusion more problematical, certainly, than the future of religion” (246).