The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy

By Christopher Lasch, 1995

Christopher Lasch, who I have elsewhere called the “conservative Marxist”, was one of America’s most independent thinkers.  Like most intellectuals, he started out as a Marxist, mostly (I think) to oppose what he regarded as the dehumanizing effects of wage labor and overspecialization, but his opposition to these things eventually led him to conclusions much different from those of Karl Marx and his followers.  By the end of his life, Lasch was calling himself a “populist”.  Rather than reacting against wage labor by trying to make the government the universal employer, his ideal—which he insisted was the reality in the USA for the first century of its existence—was a nation of independent small property holders, of craftsmen, small farm owners, and the like.  Like others who hold this dream, such as Distributists and guild socialists, Lasch has little to say about how we are to recover this state of affairs.  The goal of this collection of essays is to describe how the populist ideal was lost and to keep it from being forgotten altogether.  United by this theme, the essays in this book cover economic, political, cultural, and even educational issues.  They are all relevant because, as Lasch tells it, preindustrial Americans prided themselves for their independence of mind and spirit as well as for not having employers.  All of these self-employed laborers were supposed to be educated citizens, real participants in the national political debates.  The sharp division between manual and intellectual labor was considered a feature of European despotism.  One can then see why Lasch feels compelled to attack two ideas common among his liberal friends and former allies.  The first is replacing the goal of dignified labor with the goal of upward mobility.  The second is the growing tendency toward rule by experts and judges, based on the belief that the common people are too ignorant or bigoted to make good decisions.  Closely connected to this tendency is an excessive emphasis on “objectivity” in the press and in the schools.  Lasch thinks that these institutions have made themselves boring by trying to hold themselves above and outside of political and philosophical debate.  Even worse, the “objective information” they convey is sometimes just the questionable beliefs of whoever are regarded as “experts”.  Lasch encourages us to reconsider the interest-generating and knowledge-spreading power of real public debates of the kind we used to have before the “objective” media started directing them.

The essays themselves were originally published separately, and so they can be read independently.  Opportunity in the Promised Land:  Social Mobility or the Democratization of Competence? is a good summary of the book’s main points.  In this essay and also The Common Schools:  Horace Mann and the Assault on Imagination, readers are introduced to the great but unjustly neglected nineteenth century essayist Orestes Brownson.  In Racial Politics in New York:  The Attack on Common Standards Lasch shows real courage in criticizing the post-King civil rights movement.  In their mixed promotion of universalism and tribalism, he believes that the liberals have gotten things backwards.  Instead of smashing ethnic and cultural enclaves to prevent them from fostering racism, distinct neighborhoods should be preserved as the only genuine embodiment of cultural particularism.  On the other hand, liberals do minorities no favors when they attack universal standards as “racist” and sharing the riches of Western culture as “cultural imperialism.”

I also recommend the essay Communitarianism or Populism?  The Ethic of Compassion and the Ethic of Respect;  Lasch criticizes communitarianism in ways that I never thought I’d hear come from an alleged man of the Left.  First, their claim to oppose both free market capitalism and welfare statism is mostly bogus—all of their hostility is directed towards the former.  Second, they surrender to liberal libertinism on issues of family and sex.  “The authors of The Good Society assure their readers that they ‘do not want to advocate any single form of family life.’  It is the ‘quality of family life’ that matters in their view, not its structure.  But quality and structure are not so easily separable.  Common sense tells us that children need both fathers and mothers, that they are devastated by divorce, and that they do not flourish in day care centers…We need guidelines, not a general statement of good intentions.”  This has also been my experience with communitarians; they only oppose liberalism on a very abstract level, never on any practical point.  Lasch goes on to complain that our obsession with tolerance has led to moral indifference, and one is struck by what a wonderful reactionary he would have made.

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