Liberty Review:

The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy

by Christopher Lasch.

W.W. Norton, 1995, 276 pp., $12.95.

reviewed by Jesse Walker in the May 1996 issue.

The Expropriation of Everyday Life

The world lost a unique voice when Christopher Lasch died in February 1994. In his nine books and countless articles, Lasch constantly defied easy categorization. He was a radical critic of capitalism, a conservative critic of modern culture, and a populist critic of concentrated power; a man who abandoned the Left but could not bring himself to join the Right; a man who shared the libertarian antipathy to the state but fiercely opposed unrestrained individualism. He was a small-r republican, not a small-l liberal, and had little love for social mobility or follow-yer-bliss. Yet there is much for an individualist to value in his work.

His posthumously published final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, is not a single, focused argument. A majority of its chapters were previously published as separate essays, and as a result, the book sometimes seems lost on one tangent after another. But all these detours relate back to his theme of an elite at odds with democratic culture.

The Illusion of Certainty
Underlying all of Lasch's arguments is his philosophical pragmatism. Lasch argues that Left and Right alike attribute too much importance to certainty. If "the hope of grounding our knowledge of the world in propositions unassailable by doubt" (p. 188) fails, intellectuals across the political spectrum agree, society's moral foundations must crumble as well. We thus see conservatives desperately trying to defend untenable absolutes, while the academic Left effectively throws out values and truth altogether.* Both sides assume that the standards and traditions that provide our social glue have to be grounded in some universal principle. As a result, they give up concrete attachments, one side replacing them with dubious abstractions, the other with a nihilistic fascination with fashion.

Reading this reminded me of my first exposure to existentialist literature, in my teens. (This sounds odd, I know, but bear with me.) The existentialist idea that human beings are condemned to be free, to create our own meaning in a meaningless universe, struck me as both obviously true and curiously misstated. Free we are, but why should this be a bad thing? It's exhilarating to create our own meaning -- and besides, it isn't as though we're flying blind. We're embedded in a human culture that has survived for thousands of years; values, morals, and meaning have evolved for as long as people have interacted with each other. Some of the cultural stock we've accumulated may be worth throwing out, and a lot of it may be entirely arbitrary (which doesn't necessarily mean it's worth trashing); but it's there, and it's a base on which we all depend.

The beauty of a free society is that it allows individuals and institutions to experiment, to succeed, and to fail; to create different ways of living, and to fall back on the wisdom of the ages if their efforts go awry. Liberty is thus both radical and conservative, and above all else skeptical. It implies a skepticism about tradition that allows for the most radical experiments, and a skepticism about change that erects a conservative bulwark against social engineering.

Many under the spell of existentialism tend to downplay the rich body of tradition that has evolved over the years. Lasch takes the opposite route. He shares the libertarian's conservatism, but not his radicalism. He rejects the "romantic subjectivity" of Oscar Wilde, the French rebels of '68, and the postmodernists; he does not share "the modernist ideal of individuals emancipated from convention, constructing identities for themselves as they choose, leading their own lives . . . as if life itself were a work of art" (234).

And less exotic sorts of individualism are in for criticism as well. The unlimited experimentation of the marketplace, Lasch suggests, has undermined communal ties as surely as statism has. One might reply that some communal ties are worth undermining -- that when people vote with their dollars or with their feet to change their way of life, this is a creative destruction that should not be constrained. For Lasch, this is dangerous thinking.

Lasch argues that while "the market appears to be the ideal embodiment of the principle . . . that individuals are the best judges of their own interests and that they must therefore be allowed to speak for themselves in matters that concern their happiness and well being," this tells only part of the story. "[I]ndividuals cannot learn to speak for themselves at all, much less come to an intelligent understanding of their happiness and well-being, in a world where there are no values except those of the market. Even liberal individuals require the character-forming discipline" of family and community. And these intermediary institutions are undermined by the marketplace, which "notoriously tends to universalize itself. . . . 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" (97-98).

If this were so, one would expect the ongoing erosion of civil society Lasch documents to correlate with eras of relative laissez faire. But social bonds were stronger, by Lasch's account, in the years before the Great Society, stronger still before the Progressive Era. How does this indict the market?

Lasch is far too smart to make an argument so easily knocked down. The erosion of community, he contends, actually goes back to the Industrial Revolution and the transformation of artisans into proletarians. "By the end of the nineteenth century," he writes, "Œlaboring classes' no longer referred to the vast majority of self-reliant, self-respecting citizens; the term now referred to a permanent class of hirelings, escape from which appeared to be the only compelling definition of opportunity." The meaning of democracy began to change as well. It now referred not to "the democratization of intelligence and virtue" but to "the opportunity to Œrise' in the social scale" (72-73). Today, he concludes, the transformation is complete: the ruling class's idea of democratic reform amounts to allowing more people into the elite, not breaking down the class barrier itself. This can be seen, for example, in the present university system, where racial diversity has become a smokescreen for class homogeneity. "Increased enrollment of lower-income groups, notably black and Hispanic, has obscured a more important development, the gentrification of the leading colleges and universities, both public and private. . . . Economic stratification means that a liberal education (such as it is) has become the prerogative of the rich, together with small numbers of students recruited from select minorities" (176-177).

The fact that this situation has worsened during the statist twentieth century only supports the second half of Lasch's argument: that the welfare state has been a cure as bad as the disease. "The replacement of informal types of association by formal systems of socialization and controls weakens social trust, undermines the willingness to hold others accountable for their actions, destroys respect for authority, and thus turns out to be self-defeating" (98). Lasch's heroes are nineteenth-century Populists, not Progressive Era planners. His ideal is a decentralized republic of small property-holders, not a socialist bureaucracy.

This is an incisive analysis. Still, Lasch doesn't actually cite any credible process by which the market must force every other institution into its image. Supposedly, the late-nineteenth-century experience proves that, "Instead of serving as a counterweight to the market, . . . the family was invaded and undermined by the market" (96). But is that great abstraction, "the market," really to blame? The chief villains in Populist demonology -- the capitalists whose power angered radical democrats of the day -- were the banks and the railroads, both even then subsidized (and soon cartelized) by the state. More generally, the industrial era, especially from the Civil War on, was a period of intense angling by business for public power, public protection, and public subsidy.

And were intermediary institutions really wiped out during this period? The vast array of voluntary associations that characterized the nineteenth century extended well into the post-Civil War era. The urban neighborhoods Lasch praises for their informal social bonds actually blossomed during this time. Working-class organizations devoted to economic mutual aid continued to grow, and did not decline until after the Progressive Era. One need not prettify Gilded Age America to recognize that much freedom and conviviality survived the Great Barbecue.

The Coerced Market
There is a better explanation for the atomized, stratified society Lasch sees. The cash nexus has indeed eroded family and community in recent decades, but the culprit is government-imposed professionalization, not liberal markets. Licensing and credentialism have forced us to overspecialize. Education, medicine, law, construction -- all these and more can no longer be provided informally. They now must be bought and sold, and the number of people who can buy or sell them has been artificially reduced. What has happened is not so much the market forcing itself into informal life as the state forcing informal life into the market.

This professionalization has marched arm-in-elbow with the growth of the welfare state. Both have progressed over the same time period; both have been supported by the same policymakers and intellectuals; both represent the expropriation of everyday life. So does the growth of corporate bureaucracies, built on a foundation of limited liability and fed by the growing split between private ownership and managerial control. Lasch recognizes and appreciates the tremendous wealth created by modern capitalism, even as he bemoans the end of the days of dispersed property ownership and petit-bourgeois society. But wealth and artisanship are not incompatible. The economy of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, for example, is dominated by small-scale, family-owned, usually worker-controlled high-tech manufacturing. This was not created by deliberate government policy, but by market forces -- forces that have not prevented Northern Italy from maintaining a strong civic culture.

In short, while Lasch is right to link the atomization of society to the growth of the state, one can bemoan the former without attacking market liberalism or individual liberty. In The True and Only Heaven (1991), Lasch condemned Americans' "impatience with anything that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially the constraints of marital and familial ties." The real problem, I suggest, arises when Americans accept any constraints on their behavior except those imposed by the people with whom they share their lives. Freedom from the neighbors and children, but submission to the corporate state. Freedom from community, but acquiescence to coercion. Liberation only from those who might have a legitimate stake in how one chooses to live.

Are We Tolerating Ourselves to Death?
Fortunately, we have not plunged totally into this dystopia, though Lasch sometimes writes as if we have. He complains that liberal opinion (and society in general) stresses tolerance too much. "We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good," he declares. "In the name of sympathetic understanding, we tolerate second-rate workmanship, second-rate habits of thought, and second-rate standards of conduct" (107). But in my own brief lifetime, public opinion has turned harshly on more than a few forms of inexcusable behavior. Drunk driving, wife-beating, hazing, and more have come under assault, not just from the state (whose ham-handed opposition has sometimes made the problems more intractable), but from a public willing to be unaccommodating and intolerant in the name of moral standards.

Talk of the dangers of tolerance puts a lot of people, including me, on guard, not because we think anything goes, but because the Bill Bennetts who preach social sanctions tend to have a different view of just what should not be tolerated. It should be incumbent upon any intellectual who calls for a restoration of standards to delineate exactly what it is he is talking about. For my part: driving while wasted is bad; private pot-smoking is acceptable. Shoddy craftsmanship is a problem; neither homosexuality nor homophobia threatens the republic. Deliberately opaque language drives me bugfug; profane language rarely troubles me. In general, I don't like it when people push other people around, put others in danger, act like jerks, are extremely pompous, or do second-rate work where first-rate work is required.

Everyone has his own list, which is one argument against involving the state in any of this. Lasch argues that "Americans agree even about concrete issues" (110), and that politics therefore can and must "give more weight to the community than to the right of private decision" (113). But to the extent that we agree about values, the state's involvement is superfluous. To the extent that we don't, it is dangerous. The government isn't very good at teaching good manners, so instead it persecutes druggies and queers. Civil society, on the other hand, isn't consistently good at persecution.** But it is good at enforcing civility and upholding standards.

Talk of "the complete privatization of morality and behavior" is ultimately pointless, since such could only occur under a state so powerful that it prevents people from interacting long enough to form bonds. A society with any degree of freedom will have both public and private spheres. More importantly, it will have many intermediary zones of social interaction, areas of only moderate intimacy, of conviviality without intimacy, of friendly familiarity, and of respectful distance. As one of Lasch's favorite thinkers, Jane Jacobs, pointed out in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: "Cities are full of people with whom . . . a certain degree of contact is useful; but you do not want them in your hair. And they do not want you in theirs either" (pp. 55-56). Such intermediate relations are essential for social order, but can only emerge voluntarily.

The goal of public policy should not be, as Lasch suggests, to hash out our communities' values. It should be to create the conditions under which those values can flourish.

The Yuppie International
Ultimately, Lasch's critique isn't aimed at individual rootlessness. It is directed at a footloose class. Lasch attacks the elite, not just for its domination of the larger society, but for its separation from it. The professional classes are steadily withdrawing from common life, he argues. Neighborhoods are replaced by networks, public life by private cocoons. When the upper-middle class withdraws into its own enclaves, this only exacerbates the class barriers that are inimical to a free society.

But can you really fault people for sending their children to the best school they can find? For choosing FedEx, fax, or e-mail over the Post Office? For protecting themselves against crime as best they can? Indeed, in his discussion of the welfare state, Lasch urges working-class, lower-middle-class, and poor people to do just that: "As formal organizations break down, people will have to improvise ways of meeting their immediate needs: patrolling their own neighborhoods, withdrawing their children from public schools in order to educate them at home. The default of the state will thus contribute in its own right to the restoration of informal mechanisms of self-help" (100).

It's natural to turn to the voluntary sector when the state fails. The root problem isn't that middle-class professionals are withdrawing from common life; it's that the state is a poor substitute for common life. The government has produced poor schools, unreliable services, and unsafe streets, and as long as it continues to control these central institutions, any attempt to build superior parallel structures will have the unfortunate side effect of removing the innovator from the public sphere.

The danger of Lasch's rhetoric is that it can lend support to the wrong policies. Instead of removing the institutions that have created the credentialist society, policymakers might simply aim new sorts of social engineering at the professional class. Analyses like Lasch's often lead to calls for "national service" (conscription) and punitive taxation. Instead of erasing class privileges, such proposals merely turn members of the professional class (and anyone aspiring to the professional class) into involuntary servants of the state.

This does not mean that Lasch is wrong to bemoan class segregation. Members of the cocooned class, he argues with understandable indignation, are "more concerned with the smooth functioning of the system as a whole than with any of its parts. Their loyalties -- if the term is not itself anachronistic in this context -- are international rather than regional, national, or local. They have more in common with their counterparts in Brussels or Hong Kong than with the masses of Americans not yet plugged into the network of global communications" (35). When this separation is combined with social, political, and economic domination, it leads to an astonishing arrogance:

Lasch also argues that this arrogance shows in the professionals' lifestyle. Here his comments border on the puritanical. "Female careerism," he writes, "provides the indispensable basis of their prosperous, glamorous, gaudy, sometimes indecently lavish way of life" (33). "Indecently lavish"? This is as if, halfway through a highbrow survey of Andy Warhol's art, the critic called the artist a "simpering faggot." If Lasch wants to be a prude, that's fine, but he shouldn't mix his prejudices with his reasoned commentary.

Still, there are good reasons to attack certain attitudes of the rootless rich. I don't -- I can't -- fault anyone for moving around a lot, eating squid, or listening to exotic music. I do all these things myself. It's the self-satisfied provincialism of these self-styled cosmopolitans that sets my teeth on edge: the kind of faux-global consciousness that leads people to use a phrase like "world music," a mindless marketing category that shoves together any folk or pop music produced outside the U.S.A. This is internationalism without the nations, cosmopolitanism without the polities. It is the pretentious posturing of the Utne Reader.

An Independent Mind
The Revolt of the Elites is the final testament of one of late-twentieth-century America's most interesting writers. Lasch is always stimulating, because he is always fiercely independent. He refuses to let anyone else do his thinking for him, making him exciting to read even when he's saying something that's completely nuts.

Of how many living writers can that be said?


* These are generalizations, of course -- some might say ludicrous overgeneralizations. But they are a useful rough model of the intellectual world. Return to text

** There are parts of the country where it isn't pleasant to be an atheist, a lesbian, or a fundamentalist Christian, but there are always other communities that will either welcome such minorities with open arms or at least let one do or say as one will in private. Return to text

Liberty, May 1996, © Copyright 1996, Liberty Foundation

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