Late last year I began working on a piece marking 25 years since the publication of what I believed to be the most prescient work of the age.
The book had been published in Britain in the spring of 1995 but as February and then March 2020 came and went, we were all rather distracted. For a few months the pandemic was so overwhelming that even normal politics died down — only for it to inflame again, more incendiary and toxic than ever, at the beginning of June.
Across the US — and around the world — graduates and young professionals took to the streets, leading a bizarre anti-revolution in which immigrant shops were ransacked and working-class neighbourhoods forced to defend themselves from violent college-educated protesters and their allies.
Here was a revolution backed by almost all billion-dollar businesses and public institutions bar the US presidency, and whose leaders had almost nothing to say about poverty or unemployment. Their demands were for more diversity and racial equality, already sacred ideas among the cognitive elite, all of it accompanied by bizarre, quasi-religious public declarations of faith.
It was the Revolt of the Elites.
Christopher Lasch never lived to see his great work published, but since his death from cancer in February 1994, it has developed a cult following among unorthodox sections of Right and Left. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy warned of a growing cultural and social divide caused by a rapacious free market and the radical politics of the Sixties, one that would lead to extremism and division.
Yet what Lasch saw in 1994, but which has only now reached its apogee in 2020, was how social revolution would be pushed forward by the radical rich and resisted by the rest. “It is not just that the masses have lost interest in revolution,” he wrote: “their political instincts are demonstrably more conservative than those of their self-appointed spokesmen and would-be liberators.” If this continued, then the top strata of society would become increasingly alienated by their society and country, and turn against it, something that has come to pass with the first corporate-backed revolutionary movement in history.
Lasch was born in 1932 in Omaha, Nebraska, the heart of the original populism movement in the Midwest, and it was populism and the progressive era that would be the focus of his teaching, at the University of Iowa and later Rochester, New York.
He came from one Left-wing intellectual family and married into another; his father Robert was a Pulitzer-winning journalist, and after Harvard the younger Lasch married Nell, the daughter of Harvard historian and prominent liberal intellectual Henry Steele Commager (who, like Lasch’s father, outlived him).
Lasch was thoroughly on the Left during the 1960s, indeed he moved further in that direction, but as Alan Ryan wrote soon after his death, he “emphasised what many on the Left have thought to be the guilty secret of American liberalism: its affection for corporate organisation, and a thoroughly manipulative view of the relationship between the new social sciences and the populace whose lives the liberals wanted to improve”.
Lasch’s most successful book, the 1979 The Culture of Narcissism, was highly critical of American society’s self-obsession and was hugely influential, partly thanks to the support of President Jimmy Carter. Indeed, Carter so liked the book that it inspired his election speech on “the American malaise”, a misjudgement said to have cost him support against the cheery, optimistic Ronald Reagan.
The Culture of Narcissism is still read and widely quoted, although the heavy reliance on psychoanalysis seems somewhat dated (or at least out-of-fashion) today. Yet Roger Kimball wrote of it that “What one witnessed in its pages was the spectacle of an intelligent, politically committed man of the Left struggling to make sense of a culture in the grip of a radicalism that had turned out to be almost entirely bogus.”
As the Reagan era went on, Lasch was increasingly critical of, and criticised by, both of the mainstream camps in American thought. His opposition to divorce alienated feminists, as did his assertion that economic integration into the workforce did not necessarily mean emancipation; but neither did his thinking chime with the mainstream conservative movement then dominated by the legacy of William Buckley.
Tragically, by the time that Lasch came to write his great work, he was dying of leukaemia, and the book was completed only with the help of his daughter Elizabeth. The title was a play on Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, written in the inter-war period when it seemed reasonable to worry that liberal values might not survive democracy and the rise of the workers. Yet by the end of the century Lasch observed that it was the rich who threatened democracy.
Revolt of the Elites comprises 13 essays on America’s “democratic malaise” — he liked that word — divided into three parts, the “intensification of social divisions” in America, the decline of public discourse and finally the spiritual core of the country’s crisis, headlined “The Dark Night of the Soul”.
Throughout the book runs Lasch’s moral core, his support for the average man, something which inspired his hostility to the dominant ideologies of Left and Right. He strongly opposed economic inequality because it was corrupting; highly unequal societies tend to bring with them graft, extremism, violence and outside interference, eliminating Republican virtue. Lasch lamented that in America, the top tenth owned more than half the country’s wealth, a warning that now seems as quaint as newspapers in the placid 1950s worried about Teddy Boys. The decline of pensions and savings, and the rise of what we now call zero-contract hours, would lead to the collapse of the middle class and with it the decline of the nation.
Lasch also saw that the eroding of a common culture, values and standards, which was the major legacy of 60s cultural radicalism, ended up creating a gulf between social classes. If there were no common values to hold people together, what was to stop the rich and powerful trampling over the rest of society, cloaking their self-interest in furious self-righteousness?
And so it has come to pass, with the rise of woke capital, an amoral business model in which CEOs make thousands of times more than their lowest earners, all the while distracting attention with support for therapeutic but increasingly extreme politics.
It was Lasch who saw more clearly than anyone that the New Left had a symbiotic relationship with the culture of modern corporate capitalism — emphasising choice, therapy, self-actualisation, narcissism and the rejection of limits, not just physical but financial and moral.
Lasch also saw meritocracy as a sham, or at least “a parody of democracy”, because neither social nor geographic mobility were adequate substitutes for real social justice. “Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites,” he wrote: “if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit. It merely strengthens the likelihood that elites will exercise power irresponsibly, precisely because they recognise so few obligations to their predecessors of to the communities they profess to lead.”
Although not a Marxist, Lasch saw politics through the prism of class, arguing that elites of both Left and Right had the same economic interests. “Even when they disagree about everything else,” he argued, they “have a common stake in suppressing a politics of class.”
Indeed, the fashionable social causes of the 21st century not only ignore class, but actually further increase hostility to the poor. Evidence suggests that thinking about “white privilege” reduces sympathy for people struggling in poverty, while the association of bigotry with the non-college educated has normalised snobbery to an almost pre-modern degree. People once might have sneered at less educated people, but they would have done so privately at least; now comedy routinely makes the less educated and less geographically connected its punchline.
“The culture wars that have convulsed America since the sixties are best understood as a form of class warfare,” he wrote: “in which an enlightened elite (as it thinks of itself) seeks not so much to impose its values on the majority (a majority perceived as incorrigibly racist, sexist, provincial, and xenophobic), much less to persuade the majority by means of rational public debate.”
Yet whereas conservatives at the time saw the market as the solution, Lasch often viewed it as a problem, capitalism being in symbiosis with radicalism. By encouraging instant gratification and the ephemeral, especially when it came to jobs, the market undermined the family, which he called “a haven in a heartless world”. The very things that radicals attacked — “the authoritarian family, repressive sexual morality, literary censorship, the work ethic, and other foundations of bourgeois order” — have already been “weakened or destroyed by advanced capitalism itself”.
Because of the expansion of higher education, elites had also developed a stronger sense of their own identity and culture, spoke increasingly to each other and began to see the “people” not as a cause to sponsor but as the problem, something well-observed already during the 1968 protests.
Wealthy families had traditionally settled in one location, often over several generations. Many economic leaders were exploitative or cruel, but many others had a sense of responsibility and pride in their home towns; proximity and the idea of posterity encouraged a mindset in which elites felt some responsibility to those who worked for them, and this helped to reduce income inequality to its lowest level at mid-century. With the growing free movement of capital and of people what little connection was gone, and with it any sense of sympathy.
Lasch wrote: “The new elites are in revolt against ‘Middle America,’ as they imagine it; a nation technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middle-brow 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 the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture.”
In contrast multiculturalism “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 savoured indiscriminately, with no questions asked and no commitments required”.
All of these trends, towards knowledge economy winners cut off by geography, education and sensibility, would lead to a situation where “The talented retain many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues.”
Worse still Lasch, while not a practising Christian, understood the importance of religion, and that without it politics would inspire “the feeling of self-righteousness that is so commonly confused with religion”. It would bring all the negative hallmarks of faith, the fanaticism and intolerance, but none of the devotion, the selflessness, the agonising.
The trends that Lasch observed would only accelerate after 2001, following China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, the further erosion of America’s manufacturing base, the collapse of its skilled working class, and the increasing radicalisation of elites who benefited from globalisation and came to identify with it. This would result in the election of perhaps the most grotesque narcissist to ever lead Lasch’s country, and when Trump was about to be inaugurated Ross Douthat identified Revolt of the Elites as one of two books that foresaw the era, calling it a “polemic against the professional upper class’s withdrawal from the society it rules and a critique of the ways in which multiculturalism and meritocracy erode patriotism and democracy”.
Lasch has also come to gather a following in Britain where thinkers vaguely described as post-liberal, Blue Labour or Red Tory follow his analysis of capitalism, radicalism and the decline of the family. But his influence has seeped into mainstream British politics, too, as the Conservative Party has begun to attract voters alienated by the increasing values divide the great social critic wrote about. This weekend, Michael Gove cited Lasch as one of the thinkers who foresaw the failures of meritocracy, the great divide between the city and the town, and the mutual alienation it would bring. A quarter of a century after his prophetic book, we’re all living in Lasch’s world now.